About 70 county officials have applied to become wildfire firefighters as part of the county government’s plan to better prepare Prince Edward Island for future fire seasons.
If they all complete training, the contingent of provincial forest firefighters on the island will more than quadruple.
“It’s so exciting that we have such a great response,” said Steven Myers, the county’s secretary of environment, energy and climate change. “It’s just going to take us a little longer to get them all certified.”
The county planned to train everyone this fall, but a second cohort will now be trained in 2024, Myers said.
Wildfires aren’t common on Prince Edward Island, but a wildfire burned as many as three acres of land near the Links near Crowbush Cove in May. Three years earlier, one erupted near Murray River in southeast PEI
As fires swept through parts of Nova Scotia this spring, the PEI government invited all interested employees to sign up for the training program. At the time, it said the plan was to “build capacity to protect and support the local community,” but Myers said it also makes it easier to respond quickly to fires, not just at home, but elsewhere in Canada.
You must have helicopter training – to jump out of a helicopter.— Steven Myers, Secretary of Environment, Energy and Climate Action
“If we train civil servants to do the job, we don’t have to figure out all the figuring out: how are they going to get paid, can’t quit their job, can get them off. If they work for us, the process will be much more seamless.”
The Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action said training would be preferred to willing employees who are members of volunteer fire departments, Indigenous or members of a racial group.
A spokesman said volunteer firefighters already know how wildfires spread, and several applicants were targeted “to help increase diversity in Canada’s wildfire community.”
Training regime demanding
Not everyone who has applied ends up being trained, the minister said. The job requires candidates to be physically fit.
“One of the parts we have to do is helicopter training.[If]you’re going to fight fires in most jurisdictions, you have to have helicopter training — to jump out of a helicopter on the spot while it’s running,” Myers said. “You have to be able to do all the things that are necessary.”
Accepted applicants will receive 10 days of training from government personnel with assistance from the Emergency Measures Organization. The trainees are supervised by experienced wildfire firefighters when and if they are faced with real-life scenarios.
“As each individual demonstrates their ability to operate in more complex situations, they will be given more responsibilities and training,” the provincial spokesman said in an emailed statement.
The Ontario government contracts private companies to train its forest firefighters. It’s a five-day course, said Dave Cowan, a trainer with Fire1, a group that trains wildland firefighters based out of North Bay.
“It’s considered basic training, just to prepare them, and then the training goes on and on for the rest of their career,” Cowan said. “We can give them maybe five to 10 percent of their training that they’re going to have, and then it goes on and on.”
Holland College offers professional courses
Professional firefighters certified through Holland College’s program at the PEI Firefighter Training Center complete a 22-week program. It teaches them how to handle house fires, vehicle fires, and how to use tools like the Jaws of Life. It also includes eight weeks of on-the-job training.
Cowan says professional firefighting primarily tackles structural fires and is a “very, very different job” than wildfire firefighting.
Structural firefighting, they deal with chemicals and all sorts of other hazards. We don’t use that kind of thing. We are dealing with outside, in the woods.— Dave Cowan
“Structural firefighting, they deal with chemicals and all sorts of other hazards,” he said, including the danger of collapsing structures and situations that require self-contained breathing apparatus.
“We don’t use that kind of thing. We’ll do it outside, in the woods.’
The PEI citizen training is part of a $550,000 fire prevention program announced in the 2023 budget. It also includes new equipment for volunteer fire departments and drones to better track the spread of fire and hot spots.