Union says unstaffed wildfire lookout towers leading to undetected fires

Alberta’s largest union says several recent wildfires were undetected for up to a day, increasing the threat to public safety and property, because arbitrary interim pay rules have resulted in unstaffed fire lookout towers, including in high fire-hazard areas.

About 10 wildfire lookout towers unstaffed at any given time

The William Switzer fire tower, located near Hinton, Alta. (Therese Kehler/CBC)

Alberta's largest union says several recent wildfires were undetected for up to a day, increasing the threat to public safety and property, because arbitrary interim pay rules have resulted in unstaffed fire lookout towers, including in high fire-hazard areas.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said up to 10 lookout towers are not staffed at any given time because the province's new employment code, enacted under the former NDP government, requires staff to take a mandatory day off.

"It is very important that we detect fires, especially in a high-fire hazard, as soon as possible after ignition so that you can get the resources out there as fast as you can," said AUPE vice-president Mike Dempsey, who has more than 35 years of forestry experience, including firefighting.

"That is why it is important and critical that we have people in the towers observing and being able to call in a smoke immediately."

Because lookout towers were not staffed, the union said, at least three wildfires, including one near High Level, started and burned for up to a day before they were reported by the public.

"That is totally inadequate," said Fred McDougall, a former Alberta Forestry deputy minister.

"You are guaranteeing yourself a major cost. You are guaranteeing yourself a major fire."

McDougall stressed he had no knowledge of the fires or staffing issues, but said he would never have implemented this new policy during fire season, as Alberta's Agriculture and Forestry ministry did.

Some fire towers, like this one in northern Alberta, have been left unstaffed at times, increasing the risk that wildfires will go undetected. (Alberta Environment and Parks)

CBC News made repeated requests over the past several days for an interview with the ministry.

On Wednesday, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen issued a brief emailed statement in which he blamed the former NDP government for introducing "changes to labour laws that negatively impacted lookout employees."

Dreeshen said the government will work with the union to resolve the issue. His statement did not address why his ministry didn't act before the fire season.

Alberta's wildfire season has again spawned massive blazes that have forced the evacuation of thousands of residents, burned down houses in remote communities, and destroyed more than 300,000 hectares of timber. The Chuckegg Creek fire near High Level, now the largest wildfire in the province, is nearly 2,800 square kilometres in size and remains out of control. High Level is about 750 kilometres north of Edmonton.

There are 127 lookout towers across the province, each covering an area of about 5,000 square kilometres. Only one observer staffs each tower during fire season. Their primary job is to detect and call in smoke and fires in their area.

New government policy leaves fire tower lookouts unstaffed 0:58

Pay cuts of up to 60 per cent

Because of the isolated and critical nature of their work, lookout observers were exempt from the old employment standards code. They worked seven days a week, sometimes up to 16 hours a day, receiving an extra day's pay every week because of it.

But their exemption expired in November 2018, after the NDP government legislated changes to the code. The union said that, without consulting them, the wildfire management branch, which oversees the lookouts, issued "interim operating directions for lookout observers."

Under the interim rules, observers must take a day off each week, leaving their lookouts unstaffed, and they "should have no expectations that they will be called for duty on their designated day off."

Their pay is also now prorated based on the severity of the wildfire threat. If the hazard level is low, observers are paid only for three hours a day; an extreme-hazard level means 11 hours of work. And whatever the fire-hazard level, they can't work more than 12 hours a day.

The union said those changes will result in pay cuts of between 30 and 60 per cent.

"It feels like a betrayal to these folks, to be told that, 'The valuable work that you do, we are going to be paying you a lot less,'" Dempsey said.

Staff blindsided by changes

Dempsey said employees also feel betrayed because, in at least some cases, they weren't told about the pay changes in their offer letters of employment. Many only learned about it when they reported for what is known as commencement day.

"So we walked in blind to this whole situation," said John Clough, a lookout observer with 29 years of experience.

Like Dempsey, Clough wonders why the ministry didn't try to negotiate a new agreement with the union over the winter instead of springing the changes on employees and the union at the start of fire season.

In an emailed statement Thursday, NDP Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said when her government changed the labour code in 2018 it intended to continue exemptions for unique workplaces until new agreements could be reached.

The exemption for lookout observers "expired in error and it was not brought to our attention," the statement said.

Notley said she believes government managers tried to impose a new working arrangement on lookout observers but encountered pushback, and the issue "came to a head in late March-early April, during the election campaign." She said the NDP wasn't briefed on the issue at that time.

"The current government has tools at its disposal to resolve this matter and we urge them to do so immediately," she said.

Clough, who staffed a tower southeast of Edson, said he kept hoping there would be changes but after five weeks, he gave up and quit. He was particularly troubled by what he views as unethical rules.

"We asked (government wildfire officials) at commencement, 'OK, if we are on our day off and we are walking around the yard, and we see a smoke, are we supposed to pass that in?' And they said, 'no,'" Clough said.

He said the officials told observers if they chose to call in a smoke on their day off, it would be treated like a tip from a public hotline. Observers are not allowed to scout from the towers on their days off.

John Clough worked as a wildfire lookout observer for 29 years. (John Clough)

Not staffing lookout towers increases the risk of out-of-control fires, Clough said. Lookout observers are trained to detect wildfires before they grow larger than one-hundredth of a hectare.

"When you catch them at that size, it gives them time to get the tankers and helicopters and everything else headed in that direction," he said. "And they have probably got enough time given circumstances, climatic circumstances, to get a handle on that fire before it gets too big."

Clough said a fellow observer told him about a recent fire about 15 kilometres south of the Carrot Creek Tower, southeast of Edson.

"If they had been up their tower that day, they would have been on extreme (hazard level)," he said. "But they were forced to take their day off.

"That fire was discovered by the public — I believe by a graderman driving by, eventually. And by the time it was reported, it was already two hectares. The next day, it was close to 200 hectares."

Ten fire lookout towers unstaffed

The union said that at any given time, about 10 lookout towers are not staffed due to mandatory days off. Three towers near Edson were not staffed early in the season because observers quit after learning of the new pay rules.

Dempsey said more than 60 grievances have been filed, other experienced staff have quit, and several others have indicated they won't return next fire season.

"When you lose that kind of experience, there are much greater odds of a fire not detected in time," he said.

McDougall's career spanned nearly every aspect of forestry management and wildfire prevention. He served as Alberta's deputy minister of natural resources, and later forestry, for 11 years.

McDougall, 82, said the province's network of tower lookouts is an inexpensive, effective way to quickly detect wildfires before they grow too large — but that network's efficacy is greatly reduced when even a few lookouts aren't staffed.

"If you take one tower out of the system, you are going to have a hole in the system," he said, adding that two towers are needed to pinpoint a fire's location.

The union said the province has, in some cases, employed helicopters to cover for towers that are unstaffed. McDougall said that is far more costly and less efficient because, unlike a lookout observer, they can't constantly scan the horizon in every direction, and they must refuel.

The AUPE said it is meeting with the office of Alberta's public service commissioner to try to resolve the pay issue as soon as possible.

"It needs to be fixed soon," Dempsey said. "Otherwise, we are going to lose a ton of experience and we are going to have this threat to public safety."

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About the Author

Jennie Russell, Charles Rusnell

Investigative reporters

Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell are reporters with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. @charlesrusnell @jennierussell_