A union perspective on wildfire mismanagement in B.C.

To the Editor;

As treasurer of the B.C. General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), which represents the 1,880 employees of the BC Wildfire Service including the front-line wildfire fighters, I want to correct some points made by Mr. Quigley (A perspective on wildfire management in B.C., Aug. 26, 2021, issue) on the role of unionization and Type 1 crews in our province’s wildfire situation.

First and foremost, B.C. needs a wildfire service built around a professional core with seasonal auxiliaries. Right now, the model is backwards and its effectiveness in meeting the public’s needs suffers because successive and current governments have not dealt with the crisis of recruitment and retention across the service.

There is no truth to Mr. Quigley’s union protectionism comment, and the BCGEU does not represent most heavy equipment operators.

You would be hard pressed to find any fire of note that didn’t have private, non-BCGEU contractors working on it. Quite the opposite, coordination and effectiveness suffer when sufficient trained resources are not available during a fire season like we are experiencing now.

Even seasoned government employees find that the procurement policies and procedures are difficult to navigate. There certainly isn’t any preference given to unionized firefighters, only to those agencies that have reciprocal agreements in place through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). “Type 1” is a designation used to describe the types of trained crews working as employees of the BC Wildfire Service, but other agencies use the term to describe multiple factors other than employment status.

Despite the reviews and reports, the BC Wildfire Service today is very similar to the organization that was created in the mid-90’s when resources were pooled provincially as the Forest Protection Branch. With a large number of seasonal employees, recruitment and retention are perennial concerns.

The work is difficult and dangerous. The base pay is comparable to an entry level office clerk and there is no hazard pay. Crew members work up to 14 days without a day off to try to earn enough to get by during the winter layoff. Living in camps for extended periods takes its toll. We are starting to learn about the long term health impacts of breathing in smoke and dust. Many members do have small pensions, but the federal government has so far refused to allow early retirement for these firefighters.

BC Wildfire has a long history of hiring locals. Early every year, the application process starts. Prospective crew members have to be healthy and pass a fitness test as well as hold a first aid certificate.

Months of training, preparation and project work is done before the fire season starts in May. Fire bases are located in communities across the province where wildfires typically occur, ensuring local knowledge, connection and expertise. In order to expand and increase the effectiveness of wildfire fighting, we need a dedicated service with appropriate recruitment and retention that allows wildfire fighting leadership to live and work year round in these communities.

There is always room for improvement, but union membership comes after crew members are hired. The BCGEU wants to improve the working conditions for its members and the only protectionism that exists is the collective agreement that helps to protect the members from unfair labour practices and safeguard their occupational health and safety.

Paul Finch, Treasurer,

BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU)

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news@starjournal.net

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B.C. Wildfires 2021