Hiring blitz at Quebec's fire protection agency, fears over wildfire season grow

'This will help me sleep,' says mayor of community in northern Quebec

The images of millions of hectares of burned forest, thousands of people being evacuated and the smoke from Quebec fires reaching as far south as New York City brings back bad memories for Quebec's forest fire prevention agency and communities across Quebec.

"We're going to be worried all summer," says Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, Que., a town located 800 kilometres north of Montreal.

Lafrenière says he's hoping for a rainy summer but fears a repeat of last year's hot, dry weather, which forced his residents to evacuate twice.

The Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) is hoping to expand its ranks this year to be better prepared across Quebec by hiring 160 people including 80 firefighters in the next two years — increasing its staff by 32 per cent.

A permanent SOPFEU base of operations with 14 firefighters will also be set up over the next few weeks in Lebel-sur-Quévillon.

"This will help me sleep," says Mayor Lafrenière.

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"It's going to be very reassuring. I'm going to feel a lot safer knowing that there are people taking care of this in my area."

CBC - Quebec wildfires - Melanie Picard

Lebel-sur-Quévillon Mayor Guy Lafrenière, left, pictured in 2023 evaluating a plan with the minister of natural ressources and forests, Maïté Blanchette Vézina, centre, and Guy Lacasse from SOPFEU, right. (Mélanie Picard/Radio-Canada)

Although SOPFEU's team of meteorologists says it's impossible to know what kind of summer lies ahead, as of Tuesday, parts of southern and western Quebec were already under high or very high risk of forest fires.

"Lack of snow in winter, a milder winter ... All this leads us to think that perhaps we could experience our big June fires in May," says SOPFEU meteorologist Olivier Lundqvist.

"We're unable to say at this point what kind of season we're going to have."

Quebec investing $29 M over 5 years

Among the new hires for 2024, five firefighters will be in La Tuque, 20 in Roberval, 14 in Lebel-sur-Quévillon, four in Maniwaki, three in Mont-Tremblant and four in Matagami.

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It's thanks to Quebec's enhanced budget of $29 million over five years, says Stéphane Caron, co-ordinator of fire prevention and communications at SOPFEU.

He says another 30 forest firefighters will be hired in 2025.

After a year of training, each forest firefighter will also be able to supervise five auxiliary firefighters — those trained in forestry, such as brush-cutters or tree planters who undergo a week of training to intervene during forest fires.

With the new forest and auxiliary firefighters, SOPFEU estimates that by 2025, it should have 480 firefighters on the ground across Quebec.

SOPFEU also hopes to hire 16 protection officers, 43 operations employees, operations managers, a geospatial data specialist and 20 more managers.

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CBC - Quebec wildfires2 Premier Francois Legault

Premier François Legault visited a trench around Normétal created to protect the village from forest fires in 2023. (Gabriel Poirier/Radio-Canada)

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'Very difficult to recruit,' says SOPFEU

The recruitment of water-bomber pilots is another key issue for SOPFEU — as the organization has had to turn to private companies to make up for the shortfall.

According to the Ministry of Transport and Sustainable Development, which employs the water bomber pilots, SOPFEU is still short 10 pilots.

In all, 40 pilots are needed to fly the fleet's 14 aircraft.

CBC - Quebec wildfires - SOPFEU

The 2023 forest fire season destroyed millions hectares of forest across parts of Quebec. The province's forest fire prevention agency is hoping to hire more staff to be better prepared this year. (SOPFEU)

"It's very, very difficult to recruit. We don't have as many as we'd like," said Stéphane Caron with SOPFEU.

He says the six CL-215 aircraft are also aging and SOPFEU is hoping the government will authorize the money for replacements.

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"Some are up to 50 years old. And their reliability is starting to decline as the years go by," said Caron.

CBC - Quebec wildfires3 - Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc

Stéphane Caron with SOPFEU says the organization will increase its staff by 32 per cent. (Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc/Radio-Canada)

'Climate change is here,' says mayor

SOPFEU is also focusing on raising awareness. Its prevention budget is increasing from $150,000 to $3 million a year, since 80 per cent of forest fires are caused by human activity.

The mayor of Chibougamau, Manon Cyr, who had to evacuate her 7,200 residents, is keeping her fingers crossed that this year is better than the last.

"I don't expect us to experience the same scale as last summer, but we do have to learn to live with the situation and the risk," said Cyr.

"Climate change is here and we can see it."

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This article, written by Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc, was originally published for CBC News. Translated by CBC's Rachel Watts

Thumbnail image courtesy: SOPFEU