How the government can still forcibly conscript you to fight forest fires

22 July 2021

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CANADA – This week, British Columbia officially declared a state of emergency to deal with the more than 300 wildfires surging in the province’s interior.

More than 3,000 firefighters are already on the frontlines — and B.C. officials are scrambling to bring in more. But if the worst should happen, one of the lesser-known aspects of B.C. law is that it permits the government to forcibly conscript firefighters from the local populace.

The province’s Wildfire Act authorizes B.C.’s fire officials to “order a person who is 19 years of age or older to assist in fire control.” The person has to be “physically capable of doing so” and have skills that “can be used” to fight fires — but this technically applies to anyone who can wield a shovel or a pulaski.

The Act, passed after the record-breaking destruction of B.C.’s 2003 fire season, also allows the B.C. Wildfire Service to commandeer vehicles, equipment and even whole private businesses.

B.C. Wildfire can order any employer to redirect their staff “to carry out fire control, under an official’s direction,” with the payroll reimbursed by the province. This means that any highway crew, construction worker or logger operating within a wildfire zone can suddenly find themselves in the employ of the province working a fire line.

The conscription provisions are a throwback to a time when Canadian governments routinely fought wildfires by press-ganging local men into firefighting units. As late as the 1960s, B.C. fire crews were often recruited out of taverns or at roadblocks rounding up passing motorists.

“As a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I can remember that when a forest fire started, people were stopped on the highways, given a shovel and put to work,” reads a 2020 letter to the news site Castanet by Okanagan resident Cindy Nixdorf.

The famed British neurologist Oliver Sacks took a roadtrip through B.C. in 1960, and in a letter to his parents described being forcibly enlisted as a wildland firefighter.

“A sort of martial law exists, and the forest commission can conscript anyone they feel is suitable,” wrote Sacks, who described a day of “dragging hoses to and fro” with “other bewildered conscripts.”

The memoirist Barry Cotton similarly recounts a 1949 wedding in Vancouver being derailed because the best man was “press-ganged into fighting a forest fire.” With the press-ganging occurring in a region without telephone contact, the best man’s fate wasn’t known for several days.

In 2008, Vancouver Sun columnist Malcolm Parry described a 1958 drive through Lytton, B.C., where he avoided fire crew conscription by simply dressing too nicely. “Our non air-conditioned Pontiac was waved through when rangers saw city-bound pals and I wearing shirts, ties and lined, heavyweight-wool British suits,” he said.

And it wasn’t just B.C. In 2013, Dave Cleaveley — a  third-generation Ontario wildland firefighter — described hearing stories from his father about the days “when totally untrained firefighters were conscripted into service.”

Cleaveley added, “locals were rounded up, loaded on to a truck, and sent to the fire.”

In his autobiography, the Canadian naturalist Charlie Russell described fighting a wildfire in the Yukon in 1961 with a crew that had been “press-ganged out of a Whitehorse tavern.”

The practice of fighting fires with unwilling civilians appears to have died out for the simple reason that it’s more effective to battle wildfires with trained crews rather than untrained and potentially hostile draftees.

The United States similarly employed conscripted labour to fight its wildfires for the first half of the 20th century, and as early as the 1930s foresters were complaining to the U.S. Congress about having to wrangle crews who were not “hardened” to the task.

“Many are not skilled axmen or sawyers, they are not disciplined, they are difficult to organize,” one district forester told a Congressional committee in 1931. “Our difficulties with untrained labor is a tremendous handicap to securing efficiency on the fire line.”

More recently, the State of California has faced problems with its program of fighting wildfires using conscripted prison labour. On July 4, a 31-year-old inmate left “half a block of destruction” in the state capital of Sacramento after stealing a firetruck in an escape attempt.

Conscription for fire service isn’t the only way in which modern Canadian governments can’t technically compel labour out of their citizens.

Many provinces have vague emergency provisions to conscript workers, such as B.C.’s Emergency Program Act enabling government officials to “authorize or require any person to render assistance” in the event of a disaster.

And while jury duty selections are usually completed using voluntary call-ups, on occasion Canadian judges have exercised their powers to simply pull potential jurors from the street. This occurred most recently in 2019, when sheriffs were sent into the streets of St. John’s, Nfld., to round up jurors for a murder trial.

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