CANADA – The Whitehorse Firefighters Association and Yukon First Nations Wildfire is calling on wildland firefighters to be covered under the list of presumptive workplace cancers with the backing of the NDP.
“Within all firefighting — aviation, marine, industrial, structural, urban interface and wildland — we’re all doing the same really tough job. You get a lot of scars, some visible and some not, doing this job and I think it’s really important that we’re supporting those folks,” said Chad Thomas, CEO of Yukon First Nations Wildfire.
Thomas explained in addition to being a career firefighter who has fought both urban and rural fires he is also a cancer survivor. He explained that he was fortunate to have support from family and friends but he faced an uphill battle with the Workers Compensation Board.
“I went up there and had a conversation, and they were like, ‘Well, how do we know that this was related to wildland firefighting?’” he said. “I’ve gone through quite a bit of this. So this is definitely something that is really close to my heart.”
Thomas said around a quarter of the Yukon’s fire response is composed of wildland firefighters, and the job is increasingly dealing with structural fires in addition to wildfire.
The government is currently in the process of rewriting the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Act, allowing for changes. The updated legislation passed second reading on Oct. 25, but still has to be reported by committee to receive third reading and assent.
Right now the term firefighter in the legislation is defined as “someone who is a full-time firefighter, a part-time firefighter or a volunteer firefighter, but does not include a wildland forest firefighter.”
Wildland forest firefighters exclusively fight forest fires, but are not covered under the section of the Act that includes presumptive cancers.
This means that when a firefighter is diagnosed with specific types of cancer, it’s assumed that their work played a role and compensation is automatic. Not so for wildland firefighters, who will be required to make a case that their diagnosis is work-related.
James Price, a communications analyst with the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board, said wildland firefighters are covered under regular worker’s compensation.
“Including these wildland firefighters in our presumption, would increase the costs for employers in these certain industries and those employers affected were not consulted on the proposal,” he said.
He explained that right now the department did not feel the current research points to increased cancer risk for wildland firefighters.
“Of course, from our side at WCB, we are obviously continuing to monitor all the research around this and the health issues that are facing wildland firefighters and continue to make these recommendations to the government,” Price said.
British Columbia changed their legislation to include wildland firefighters in 2019.
In the House on Oct. 25 Minister Richard Mostyn acknowledged the request to include wildland fire, but he said he was reluctant to make changes on the fly that were not necessarily based on scientific evidence or costed.
“There is an evolution happening in that field, […] in a matter of months or years, there will be another change or new approach to WCB where maybe they take presumptive cancers — all of them — and just say that if you are working in any field, this is where it goes,” he said.
NDP leader Kate White said Wednesday the legislation should be modified right away.
“The Yukon has a rare opportunity right now to do right by wildland firefighters. The legislation is already open and on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. We’re not asking for a complete redo. We’re asking to remove one phrase so that wildland firefighters can benefit from the same protection and the same coverage as all other firefighters in the territory,” said White.