(TORONTO) – With cuts to emergency information
staff, Ontario could be headed for its own firestorm such as British
Columbia had in 2003 with unprecedented forest fire damage, says the
Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
Firestorm, a B.C. report, cited a lack of trained
communicators to get timely, accurate information out to the public
and media. As record numbers of fires rage out of control in
Northern Ontario, poor information flow on the status and handling
of the fires could lead to disaster, according to OPSEU president
Warren (Smokey) Thomas.
“Of the four seasoned professionals dedicated to
forest fire communications, only one remains,” says Thomas. “That’s
a 75-per-cent reduction in expertise. Northerners are wondering
whether to leave their homes, afraid for their safety and their
possessions. They need information. Ontario was publicly criticized
for forest fire communications deficiencies in 2007 and is repeating
Media and the public have had to turn to police,
fire, and municipal services. Information pieced together from
various sources may not be complete, current, or accurate, according
to Pierre Verhelst, an aircraft maintenance engineer and president
of OPSEU Local 605.
“Fire departments, the OPP, local police, and
municipal leaders have their own jobs to do during emergencies. They
can hardly be expected to do MNR’s work as well,” says Verhelst.
“Without proper staffing in MNR’s emergency information services,
citizens are not hearing what they need to hear, when they need to
hear it, and with the level of detail they need.”
The area of Northern Ontario that’s on fire is
equivalent to a 6-km swath from Mississauga to the east end of
Oshawa; yet, there has been little media coverage outside the North.
When the MNR cut information staff, it also cut the service that
provided video to news outlets.
“When nobody’s telling the story, public safety is
further compromised,” says Thomas. “This is a full-blown crisis. It
is irresponsible, to say the least, for our provincial government to
be taking the risks it’s taking with people’s safety and property.”
According to the MNR website, 11 new fires since
yesterday bring the total to 335.