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Ontario to give out $5,000 bonuses to wildland firefighters

TORONTO — Ontario plans to give front-line wildland firefighters and pilots a $5,000 bonus and make 100 of those jobs permanent in an effort to recruit and retain more workers.

Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Graydon Smith says the province wants more people fighting wildland fires and is planning a recruitment blitz ahead of the start of the wildfire season that begins in April.

The majority of the 660 forest firefighters in the province are part-timers and the union representing them has long said that part-time work, along with low pay, are major problems in retaining them.

Smith says the government is working on longer-term plans to stabilize the workforce, which will include the purchase of new equipment, including water bombers.

Premier Doug Ford says Ontario plans to buy new water bombers, but says the manufacturers cannot build them fast enough.

Canada had its worst wildfire season ever last year and Smith says they are seeing more fires per year in Ontario over the last decade.

“We want to have more people fighting wildland fires in Ontario and so this is a recruitment and retention tool, both,” Smith said in an interview. 

“It’s a tight labour market out there and it can be challenging and we also want to keep them around and we want to keep that knowledge in the system.”

Smith said a robust forest fire ranger program will also allow the province to help out other provinces and territories.

More than 500 Ontario fire rangers fought blazes in British Columbia and Northwest Territories last year.

The province will also give one-time $1,000 bonuses to unionized wildland firefighting support staff.

There were more than 700 forest fires in Ontario last year that burned 441,000 hectares of forest, three times the average over 10 years.

Researchers have warned that it will likely be another tough year, with widespread droughts, early snowmelt and lower-than-usual precipitation through the winter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2024. 

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press