Australia — They were hailed as heroic “Canadian hotshots” whenthey arrived in Australia last month to help exhausted crews battle thewildfires ravaging the country’s southeastern bushlands.
But now, a contingent of 52 B.C. forest fire specialists has been caught upin a spat between an Australian state government and a national firefighters’union upset at the “scandalous” wages — almost $550 a day — beingpaid by Australian taxpayers to the emergency imports.
A member of Australia’s Rural Fire Service fights a large bushfire north of Sydney last month. The long fire season has prompted officials to bring in firefighters from outside the country, including a B.C. contingent, below, being given a send-off by Forests and Range Minister Rich Coleman. (Photo: Ian Waldie)
In a controversy widely covered by Australian news media, the state of Victoria’s payments to the fly-in “fireys” from Canada, the United States and New Zealand have been slammed by Australia’s United Firefighters Union.
Union secretary Peter Marshall called the payments to the foreign professionals — whose accommodation and travel expenses are also being covered by Australia — a “disgrace” when overworked Victorians are volunteering at their own cost.
“I was under the impression that this goodwill gesture coming from overseas was not paid labour,” Mr. Marshall said.
The union’s criticism came after it revealed a leaked document that detailed the costs being paid by Australian fire agencies for out-of-country assistance.
But Victoria’s acting premier, John Thwaites, defended the foreign crews and the compensation they’re receiving.
“This is the longest fire season we have ever faced,” he told TheAustralian newspaper. “A number of the extra firefighters we have put onare getting fatigued, so it is appropriate to have a level of internationalsupport. These people have special skills in backcountry firefighting, and Ithink we should be pleased and grateful they are helping us.”Since December,bushfires have scorched more than a million hectares of land, destroying dozensof homes and a ski lodge in Victoria.
The Canadian team has been offering its help and expertise since arriving inMelbourne on Jan. 5. It is the largest overseas deployment yet of Canadian firespecialists and firefighters.
Peter Fuglem, director of the B.C. Forest Protection Program, said that aspart of a co-operation agreement that British Columbia has with Australia, thepay is “quite normal.”
Ewan Waller, a spokesman for the state of Victoria’s Department ofSustainability and Environment, said that in the past, when Victorianfirefighters have battled fires in other regions, their expenses were alsocovered by the overseas fire agencies, with “comparable” pay.
He added that the actual wages are likely to be less than half of the totalamount after costs such as medical insurance and taxes are deducted.
The uproar has sparked renewed union calls in Australia to implement a systemof compensation for volunteers. But Mr. Waller said it isn’t an issue amongvolunteer firefighters.
In fact, the issue has prompted some to actually dismiss claims they shouldbe paid, he said.
“It was an opportunity for one of the unions that employs one of thegroups of firefighters over here to get some publicity,” he said. “Interms of people genuinely being concerned, they weren’t at all.”