With six weeks until wildfire season, the Ford government is on a campaign to silence its wildland firefighters’ dire warning about the catastrophic state of the province’s fire program. Make no mistake, winter is almost over and the fire bans are coming.

Fire bans are used by the province when the threat of wildfire is extreme “or when firefighting resources are limited,” and though the government cannot readily influence the severity of the hazard, it can, and does, control the limitation of firefighting resources.

Unfortunately, as Ontario’s vast forests become more volatile, its wildfire program grows increasingly fragile due to a series of crises the government has been ignoring for years.

According to an internal report from 2015, Ontario’s wildfire program is comprised primarily of students trying to pay for college, which has resulted in constant turnover and “inexperienced staff making poor decisions on the fireline.”

Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Graydon Smith, who was appointed by Premier Doug Ford to oversee the wildfire program, has reassured Ontarians that the province has a “great number of crews.” In reality, ongoing retention issues mean Ontario is actually losing fire crews, and experience, at an exponential rate every year.

In 2022, Ontario was short approximately 12 per cent of its fire crews. That number ballooned to 25 per cent in 2023, and though the province’s inability to retain experienced firefighters is a crisis on its own, it also exacerbates every other issue.

Historically, as forest firefighters gained experience with age, many moved on to become expert fire managers, policymakers and program directors. With the final generation of experienced fire staff retired or nearing retirement, and the average firefighter spending only a handful of years in the program, who will fight the infernos of the future and guide the program through the darkest time in its history?

In an attempt to quietly find a solution to the program’s crises, the Ford government paid a private consulting firm more than $100,000 to investigate this catastrophic retention problem in the wildfire program. However, the government will not release the report’s findings.

Though this is only the tip of the iceberg, Ontario continues to neglect its population’s safety and the reality of climate change at a time when the threat of whole communities being lost is a matter of when not if.

As Ontario’s vast forests become more volatile, its wildfire program grows increasingly fragile due to a series of crises the government has been ignoring for years, writes Noah A. Freedman @OPSEU @GraydonTheMPP #onpoli #Wildfires #ClimateEmergency

The auditor general noted before the 2023 wildfire season that Ontario will be faced with devastating fires and the only reason the province has “avoided disastrous fires in recent history” is simply because of good luck. The question is: Will the province be prepared?

Ontarians living in Smith’s riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka will remember the devastation caused by the Parry Sound 33 forest fire in 2018 when crews from across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico were called in to help protect the province.

This should have come as no surprise considering the auditor general warned Ontarians that their government lacks the resources needed to protect people from wildfire emergencies and that there are “mitigation and preparedness activities [which] are not being carried out effectively.”

Curiously, though Smith’s ministry claims it provided all internal documentation that “could significantly affect” the inquest into the wildfire program, the staffing crisis was not documented in the auditor’s final report.

Even if Smith could point to documentation that claimed the fire program was developing strategies to prevent and mitigate fires, there is not enough staff, let alone experience, to fight fires and implement plans to prevent them.

What is even more alarming is that though his government has neglected its wildfire program entirely, one of the premier’s major political aspirations is to develop “the Ring of Fire.” This forest, the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which is home to numerous remote Indigenous communities, is one of the largest swaths of peatland in the world and possibly the densest terrestrial carbon storage on the planet.

Ignoring the irreparable damage the destruction of this land would cause the global climate, peat fires are notoriously dangerous and difficult to put out. With Ontario’s forest firefighting program already in crisis, who would protect this extremely remote infrastructure?

At its heart, the Ontario government’s responsibility is to look after the people of Ontario. With the wildfire season less than eight weeks away, unseasonably warm temperatures provincially, the wildfire program in crisis and the government’s campaign to silence its forest firefighters’ dire warnings, the Ontario government has undoubtedly failed its citizens. And until it acknowledges this crisis instead of silencing those trying to fix it, what happens in 2024 is entirely in the government’s hands.

Noah A. Freedman is the vice-president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 703 and a forest fire crew leader for the province of Ontario.

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Certainly, it won't be Doug Ford and his corrupt government. Doug is too busy lining his pockets and filling the pork barrels of his corrupt developer donors.

I wonder if the possibility of exchanging forest-fire crews with countries in the southern hemisphere has been fully investigated.