(TORONTO) – Ontario won’t have the staff for smooth, quick
evacuations during forest fires and other emergencies if the
Ministry of Natural Resources goes ahead with plans to close offices
and lay off workers, says the Ontario Public Service Employees
“MNR has been underfunded and under-resourced since cuts started
in the 1990s,” says OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “Now,
the government wants another $50 million out of the budget. There is
no place left to cut without putting people and services at risk.
And that’s exactly what will happen if the Ministry serves Ontarians
only from centres in large regions rather than smaller areas.”
Gogama is one such vulnerable office. Staffed with nine people,
Gogama services an area between Sudbury and Timmins. Though not
designated as fire response, some staff were called out to help
evacuate the Westree area last week.
They were out again over the long weekend as fires raced toward
highways in the area. Within 15 minutes of getting called in to
work, Gogama staff were at the office to pick up equipment and hit
the roads to evacuate people.
“We were close. We live in the area. We know the roads,” says
Gail Ballak, a registered professional forester for more than 20
years and president of OPSEU Local 651. “We knew where people would
be camping. We got to them quickly and got them out safely.”
Thomas says the government’s plan puts that kind of service in
“There’s no way we’ll get response time like that if the McGuinty
government insists on centralizing services,” he says. “They can do
that, and the bean counters will call it a success. But when there’s
a forest fire or other emergency two or three hours drive from a
regional office, response time will lag. And no question – that will
be a failure.”
There are 42 active fires in Ontario and about 29,000 hectares
burning, according to the MNR website. At 324, the number of fires
to date this year is more than double last year’s 147 and
nearly double the 10-year average.