Rising Wildfires, Rising Injustice: The Battle for Fair Compensation for Firefighters

In a startling revelation, forest and wildland firefighters across the country find themselves not only battling rampant wildfires but also an unjust system that denies them fair access to compensation in cases of job-related cancer diagnoses. In 2022, wildfires scorched 1,379,632 hectares of Canadian land. However, the situation took a dramatic turn in 2023, with wildfires engulfing a staggering 16,441,400 hectares, representing an astonishing 1,091% increase in less than a year.

On Sunday, September 10, 2023, dozens of family members and friends came together at LeBreton Flats in Ottawa to honour and remember the 86 brave firefighters who tragically lost their lives over the past year in the line of duty or from occupational illnesses. Four of those firefighters died while battling wildfires.

The Canadian Firefighters Memorial ceremony was a sincere testament to the profound and enduring sacrifices made by these 86 individuals. It underscored the harsh realities of their chosen profession, where they confronted danger head-on, day in and day out, to protect their communities. These firefighters had faced not only immediate dangers but also the long-term health risks associated with their selfless service.

Despite overwhelming scientific evidence linking wildfire exposure to higher cancer risks, these brave individuals see themselves excluded from presumptive legislation that recognizes and identifies cancer as an occupational disease across Canada. Consequently, the approximately 5,500 wildland firefighters are denied automatic approval for provincial workers’ compensation through agencies such as WorkSafeBC and the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

A growing body of research has shown that firefighters, including wildland firefighters, are at an increased risk of developing cancer. This is due to the exposure to several carcinogens, including:

  • Smoke from wildfires contains various cancer-causing chemicals, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, and formaldehyde. PAHs are a type of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, which are tiny particles that can get deep into the lungs and bloodstream.
  • Fireground dust is also contaminated with PAHs and other carcinogens.
  • Exposure to extreme heat can damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer.
  • Wildland firefighters may also be exposed to other chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, which can increase cancer risk.

“A firefighter is a firefighter is a firefighter,” MP Sherry Romanado told CCSN when asked if wildland firefighters will be included under Bill C-224. This landmark legislation, which received royal assent in late June 2023 and was championed by MP Romanado and Senator Hassan Yussuff, suggests various measures aimed at lowering the occurrence of work-related cancer in firefighters and ensuring fair compensation for those who develop the illness, irrespective of their service location within a province or territory.

“Cancer is responsible for over 85% of all duty-related deaths among firefighters in Canada. Awareness, education, and information sharing are critical to the prevention and early detection of the cancers linked to firefighting,” MP Romanado said in a government press release on June 26, 2023.

Currently, Manitoba is one of Canada’s only provinces to have introduced an amendment to its workers’ compensation legislation. “In May 2023, Manitoba amended The Workers Compensation Act to extend the presumptions of employment in firefighting being the dominant cause of certain cancers and heart injury to include wildfire firefighters,” said Sarah Wallace, Director of Communications & Public Relations for the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba.

However, it is worth noting that this amendment has not yet taken effect. Furthermore, it will only apply to firefighters who receive a cancer diagnosis after the official implementation date of the clause, which is currently unspecified.

British Columbia also does not exclude wildfire fighters from the WorkSafeBC presumptive cancer coverage. According to Lori Guiton, WorkSafeBC Director of Policy, Regulation & Research, “Bill 18 (2019) which came into effect on May 16, 2019, amended the Act to address the gap that existed for the presumptions and firefighter coverage. Among other changes, it struck the “other than a forest fire” provision.”

According to the Government of Ontario, presumptive legislation enables the government to establish, via regulatory measures, certain diseases or heart injuries among firefighters that would automatically be considered as job-related for workers’ compensation purposes unless evidence to the contrary is presented. Although wildland firefighters can still apply for workers’ compensation, their exclusion from presumptive legislation means that they must prove that their cancer was caused by their job to get workers’ benefits. This process can be difficult and expensive, and many firefighters are denied benefits.

CCSN is calling on all provinces and territories to pass presumptive legislation for cancer in wildland firefighters and to ensure its immediate enforcement. This would guarantee that these firefighters have the same access to compensation as other firefighters who develop cancer on the job. Furthermore, CCSN is also calling for these long overdue amendments to ensure that presumptive legislation applies to wildland firefighters not only after it’s implemented but also retroactively, covering past cases where these dedicated individuals have been affected by job-related cancer without access to proper compensation.

On March 28, 2023, The Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act, 2023, (formerly Bill 9) received royal assent in Alberta. This legislation provides easier access to workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters who fought the 2016 Fort McMurray fire and are diagnosed with certain cancers. According to the Government of Alberta, the bill “simplifies the workers’ compensation claim process by eliminating the steps required to link a diagnosis to the job.” However, this is clearly not the case.

“It’s extra hard when you’re trying to battle cancer as a firefighter, and as a family — as anybody — and then trying to prove a claim that you know is related to this,” firefighter Matt Osborne, President of the Alberta Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association, told the CBC. Osborne emphasized that even now, in 2023, the family of a firefighter who lost his life to cancer in 2018 following exposure in Fort McMurray is persistently battling with the Workers’ Compensation Board to attain the compensation they are entitled to.

The financial and emotional burdens firefighters and their families face due to the high costs of cancer treatment and care, especially when compensation is denied or delayed, are significant and often devastating. Firefighters diagnosed with cancer often face exorbitant medical expenses. Cancer treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medications, can be costly. Co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket costs can quickly accumulate, even with health insurance. Without proper and equitable compensation, these costs can lead to substantial debt and financial strain.

Seeking compensation through legal channels can be a long and arduous process. Firefighters and their families often find themselves engaged in legal battles with insurance companies or workers’ compensation boards. These legal proceedings can be emotionally draining and add to the overall burden.

When compensation is delayed, treatment is delayed. Firefighters may postpone or forego necessary medical treatments or diagnostic tests due to financial constraints, which can negatively impact the prognosis and outcomes of cancer patients, making their recovery more challenging.

The challenges Canada’s forest and wildland firefighters face underscore the urgent need for systemic change. Their unwavering dedication to protecting our communities and natural landscapes demands reciprocal support from our society and government. Looking to the future, commitment to ensuring that these brave individuals receive fair compensation, timely access to healthcare, and the recognition they rightfully deserve is paramount. Advocating for and implementing presumptive legislation that encompasses all firefighters, including wildland firefighters, honours their sacrifices and contributes to a safer, more equitable future for those who risk it all to safeguard against the ravages of wildfires.

Let us also remember that these brave firefighters, both in the capacity of employment and volunteer service, are our families and friends. These individuals are more than just uniformed heroes; they are our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and valued members of our chosen families. They live and breathe in our neighbourhoods, and we have come to know and love many of them.

In light of their enormous sacrifices, let’s work together to guarantee that these brave firefighters have access to the finest safety equipment available. We have a moral duty and responsibility to safeguard them from the risks associated with their jobs, including the danger of developing cancer at work. Let’s protect them, so that they can protect us.

Image: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data [2023], processed by Pierre Markuse. West Kiskatinaw River Wildfire, British Columbia, Canada – 7 June 2023. Image is about 37 kilometers wide. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.