Virginia Tech expert: Is a shortage of Canadian firefighters worsening the nation’s wildfire crisis?
More than 400 active fires are burning in Canada right now, marking what is most likely the worst fire season in the nation’s history. The drivers of the wildfires in Canada match recent fire disasters in the Western U.S. and other countries: climate change-induced temperatures and droughts. But Canada is facing a unique issue as well: a shortage of volunteer firefighters.
The shortfall is likely making the crisis all the more difficult.
“A lot of towns and villages rely heavily on volunteers who offer their services to protect their communities, but those numbers are dwindling,” said Jadrian Wooten, a Virginia Tech professor of economics. “Canada has already lost 30,000 firefighters over the past six years, according to a national survey. While career firefighters are paid well, the volunteer model has its limitations.”
The demands of firefighters to also act as first responders to car accidents, medical calls, off-road rescues, overdoses, and, yes, forest fires have resulted in volunteer services that can no longer cover all of a community’s needs.
“As demand increased, the old system couldn't keep up. And that's when the shortage became more apparent,” Wooten said. “Shortages occur whenever wages (or prices) are below some market level, but a variety of factors can cause them. The most likely cause is an increase in demand for first responders.”
Recruiting new firefighters, however, is no easy task, Wooten said. Extensive training requirements and associated costs are barriers to entry for potential recruits. Hazardous working conditions and physical demands further deter individuals from pursuing these careers. Additionally, aging firefighters are nearing retirement age which exacerbates the shortage.
“Policymakers must consider strategies to attract and retain firefighters," Wooten added. “Enhancing compensation packages, providing more support for training and education, and improving working conditions— are all crucial steps to make the profession more appealing and competitive. If fire protection is intended to serve as a public good, governments must address funding issues that prevent fire departments from providing a full range of services their constituencies demand.”
As climate change brings ever-rising global temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns, the frequency and intensity of wildfires are expected to increase, as will the demand for more fighters. “Without adequate resources and personnel, communities will become increasingly vulnerable to the devastating impacts of wildfires, exacerbating the externalities experienced by both immediate and neighboring regions,” Wooten said.
Jadrian Wooten is collegiate associate professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Economics and is the author of Parks and Recreation and Economics. Read more about Wooten’s takeaway on the economic impact from the Canadian wildfire crisis and climate change in his Monday Morning Economist newsletter. Wooten has been featured in USA Today, Inside Higher Ed, WJLA ABC 7 Washington, D.C., and NBC News, among scores of other media outlets. Read more about him here.
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