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As fire risk rises, BC Wildfire Service faces retention issues

Wildland firefighters aren’t compensated nearly as well as municipal crews, despite rising wildfire concerns
Forest Fire
A firefighter stares down a raging forest fire in B.C.

With no meaningful salary changes in 20 years and a work model that keeps 85 per cent of employees in a seasonal, part-time role, retention and turnover among crews have become major issues for British Columbia’s wildland firefighters.

“Previously, we saw workers with 10 to 20 seasons of experience, and it used to be a job, 10 to 20 years ago, that paid really well, but the wages have not kept up,” said Stephanie Smith, president of the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents the more than 1,800 employees of the BC Wildfire Service.

“So BC Wildfire members, whether it is frontline wildfire fighters or it’s background support or administrative professionals, are amongst the lowest-paid in direct government. For example, a labour position in Whistler, they are offering $32 an hour, while the starting wage for a BC Wildfire Service member is for $24 an hour.”

With so few permanent, full-time wildland firefighters, and wages that are, on average, far below municipal and structural firefighter roles, most wildfire crews in the province expect a 25-per-cent turnover year to year, as employees continuously move to more secure roles at municipal fire halls, according to Smith.

Some places, like Pemberton, often see a lower turnover rate due to the lifestyle the town and area can offer, while other, more remote places can sometimes see as high as a 100-per-cent turnover in a year.

The constant shuffling and hiring of employees means crews put a lot of effort and focus each year into training new recruits to get them up to speed before the wildfire season hits its peak. However, if the fire season starts early in the year, like it did in 2021, this can also mean that inexperienced firefighters are being sent to major fires without being fully trained, which can often lead to “rookie mistakes” in the field.

“One big thing is tunnel vision. You’re showing up to a fire, you’re doing a new role as a commander. And for a lot of people, what happens is they get operational tunnel vision, basically. They’re so focused on winning and they want to complete the objective, they want to put the fire out, and then they start to ignore warning signs, like wind shifts or increased fire behaviour,” said one B.C. wildland firefighter who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job.

“Another big thing is if there’s some technical issue with a pump and you don’t have the experience or the knowledge to fix it in the field. These machines break down all the time. And if you’re relying on those pieces of equipment to function, and it doesn’t, it’s game over—you lost.”

In addition to having higher base salaries and more job security, municipal firefighter jobs also have better pension programs, which allow employees to retire at 50 with full pensions. Meanwhile, wildland firefighters’ salaries fluctuate drastically each year, depending on the amount of overtime worked.

In a bad fire season, wildland firefighters can often get a year’s worth of hours in just a few months and rake in north of $100,000. However, in a slow year, the salary can be as low as $30,000. That fluctuation, as well as overtime hours not being pensionable, creates a very difficult situation for the long-term viability of wildland firefighting, according to the firefighter Pique spoke to, who worked seasonally for 13 years before recently being promoted to one of the few full-time positions.

“One good example was in fall 2015, which was actually a really big fire season for us, so financially, a really good year for wildfire fighters. So I bought a house that fall, and then 2016 was the slowest year and I almost couldn’t make my mortgage payments. I had to rent my house out, and at the end of the summer, I was basically living paycheque to paycheque, it was super tight,” he said.

“So there’s no way to plan, or budget for how much you’re going to make in a summer. If you took our 10-year average of earnings and paid us that every year, it would be way better than the boom-or-bust overtime model.”

With everything seemingly stacked in favour of the municipal firefighter roles, it begs the question: Why do people stay in wildfire services when they can have more stable hours and a better post-retirement life in a municipal firefighter role?

For many, it comes down to a passion and dedication for the work, and the allure of a rural lifestyle.

“For me, I love living rurally … but the thing that’s interesting is in wildfire, you actually fight way more fire than a structural firefighter. A typical structural firefighter, they’ll only go to a few house fires a year, whereas last summer wildfire fighters saw like 90 days of firefighting,” said the firefighter.

“So in my mind, the work is way more rewarding, because you’re actually seeing a lot of fire and extreme fire behaviour. You know, 500-foot flames off of a forest is a pretty good adrenaline rush.”

While it may seem like the current model for wildland firefighters is unsustainable given the large disparity in benefits and pay between wildland and municipal jobs, the BCGEU is working to try and bridge that gap and make wildland firefighting a more secure long-term option.

“There is a number of ways we are coming at this. One, of course, was our advocacy and our lobbying to have a year-round, all-hazard wildfire service,” said Smith.

“Now, our concern with that is, yes, there has been a commitment to do that, but we want to make sure it is done in the right way—something that is sustainable, something that is robustly funded so that people see this as a career that they want to get into and stay in.

“At this point, we’ve been really disappointed, because our union has not been involved. And so we are continuing to push to have a seat at the table and make sure the voices of our members are heard and how they see the creation of a year-round wildfire service that really works for our province.”

Currently, talks with the province are at an impasse, and the BCGEU is waiting to be called back to the table with a monetary proposal its members would be happy with, including things like cost-of-living adjustments and inflation protection for wages.

When asked about the disparity between municipal and wildland fire crews, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Environment, in an emailed statement, said the ministry is aware of the turnover issue and has made steps to rectify it with a “historic funding commitment of over $350 million.”

“This significant investment enables the transition to a year-round operational model, allowing for the hiring of more year-round staff,” read the emailed statement. “While acknowledging that a certain level of turnover is expected given the physical nature of wildland firefighting, we are aware that the turnover rate of firefighting crews is an issue facing many jurisdictions, including B.C., and we are actively addressing this issue through historic investments across the entire BC Wildfire Service.”

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