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Would you fight Alberta’s wildfires for $22/hour? And no benefits?

What On Earth27:04Low pay, high risk. Why stay to fight wildfires in Alberta?

It was early August 2022, when Michelle Wigmore was on her way back from leading a crew of wildland firefighters near Grande Prairie, Alta. They stopped for a coffee in Fox Creek, about 230 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

“There was a ‘help wanted’ sign up and the wage that they were offering at the Tim Hortons was higher than all our crew members,” said Wigmore in an interview with CBC’s What On Earth.

While they made a joke of it at the time, Wigmore — who has about three decades of experience fighting wildfires in Ontario and Alberta — says it felt unfair when she considered the amount of training and work involved in the job. 

Low wages are one of the reasons Wigmore and others say wildland firefighters in Alberta are not returning to the seasonal jobs, resulting in a dwindling number of experienced firefighters and creating potential safety risks to personnel and the public. 

Other reasons include “lack of benefits [and] lack of potential opportunity in the organization,” said a former wildland firefighter, whom CBC News has agreed to call by one of his initials, D, because of concerns speaking out could harm his livelihood. 

D worked as a seasonal wildland firefighter — part of what were long called “Type 1” crews — for the province of Alberta for several years, including 2023. 

Firefighters in yellow shirts run hoses to put out a wildfire burning in the background.
South African firefighters work on a blaze near Edson, Alta., in June 2023. The province has, in the past, brought in crews from other jurisdictions to help its own firefighters. (Alberta Wildfire)

“When I first started… some districts had very high retention and some had good retention. But in the last 10 years, things have gotten significantly worse and we’re essentially seeing people come to Alberta, get their training, work one, two, three seasons and then move on to, typically, Parks Canada or B.C. Wildfire [Service],” he said. 

He says, early in his career, there would have been about two or three new members on a crew of 20. Last year, which saw a record-breaking area of land burned in Alberta, D says about half of them overall were new to wildland firefighting. 

Fires and evacuations

This year’s wildfire season is already well underway, with several fires ongoing in Alberta, and some evacuation orders issued. 

It has been “one of the best recruitment years ever,” for seasonal wildfire fighters, according to Todd Loewen, Alberta’s minister of forestry and parks, though he said this assessment is based on the number of people who responded to the first round of advertising for those positions. 

Loewen told CBC News he thinks there were 1,000 such applicants. It was not immediately clear how many had been hired as seasonal crew by the province.

A spokesperson for the ministry said in a statement 2023’s return rate among wildfire fighters was 57 per cent — roughly in line with what D says he saw on the ground. 

Firefighters gather near a helicopter in a forest clearing.
Firefighters gather near a helicopter near Kenora, Ont., on Aug. 19, 2021. (Submitted by Michelle Wigmore)

But the Alberta Union of Public Employees (AUPE), which represents the seasonal firefighters, says last year’s retention rate was lower — stating in an open letter and petition that less than half of them are coming back, year over year.

It’s “hard for Alberta to bring people back” when workers could earn more working for B.C. or Parks Canada, AUPE president James Gault told CBC News. 

Seasonal firefighters in Alberta start at $22.44/hour. The most a seasonal employee could earn in a leadership position, with years of experience, is $30.17/hour. In B.C., pay starts at $27.58/hour. Parks Canada fire crew members started at $29.94/hour in 2023; in 2024, starting wages are $30.52/hour. 

According to a 2019 internal retention survey of Alberta’s seasonal wildland firefighters obtained by CBC News, a third of respondents cited a lack of benefits as the “greatest challenge wildfire management faces when hoping to increase retention rates.” 

‘Conditional’ offers

Unlike some other wildfire agencies, such as Parks Canada and those in Northwest Territories, B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, seasonal firefighters in Alberta receive no health benefits coverage. In April, Ontario said it would provide wildland firefighters with additional health coverage to include some types of cancers, heart injuries and PTSD — to bring benefits in line with what municipal firefighters are entitled to in that province. 

AUPE says it wants to see a similar extension to its wildland firefighters.

“I would think that’s almost secondary because we don’t get any benefits,” said Wigmore, who took a pay cut, and gave up the benefits, pension and job security she had as a permanent, year-round employee in Alberta for a job leading a unit on the front lines. 

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Another complication is that seasonal workers lose AUPE representation between contracts, and therefore don’t have recall rights to return to their jobs the following year. Firefighters who want to come back can receive an “expression of interest” letter from the province, however, the letter states it is a “conditional offer not a guarantee of employment.” 

One of the paths to permanent employment for firefighters are the year-round “forest officer” positions. But those require a forestry technology diploma, which can pose a barrier to some longtime seasonal staff. 

The Alberta government has recently created 30 more of those positions, according to a statement.

The province also said earlier this year it would hire 100 more seasonal, frontline firefighters – on top of what is usually, according to AUPE, between 400 and 500. Last year, the province had 432 seasonal positions; for 2024, there are 532 once hiring is complete, said the spokesperson. 

“We have to do that in order to make sure that down the road we have those experienced people,” said Loewen.

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Alberta also brings in externally contracted firefighters, as well as crews from other provinces. 

D says, based on his experience, it’s clear Alberta needs more wildland firefighters. But he worries that hiring more seasonal staff in the middle of a “retention crisis is irresponsible” by spreading the pool of more experienced crew leaders even thinner across the various teams. 

He says year after year of poor retention has resulted in people leading crews with very little experience — “leaders who have had maybe one year, two years of experience out there making the decisions.” 

“Having experienced, competent leaders really can mean life and death when we’re talking about incidents on the fire line,” he said. 

It also means the loss of mentorship among staff “to pass on those hard-fought or hard-learned lessons.”

These crews are usually the first at the scene of a wildfire and are responsible for making the first calls on how to respond, like whether to deploy helicopters to attack the blaze, determining if they need more firefighting crews, or when a nearby town should be evacuated, says Wigmore. 

If crew leaders “don’t have the experience, they’re going to make the wrong decisions. And it’ll cost money, but it also puts a lot of people in danger as well,” she said. 

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