The Australian bushfire disaster: what does it mean for firefighters and workers?

There are many themes amid the story of the horrifying Australian bushfires of 2019/20:  destruction of habitat and homes, the reality of climate change, and the resilience and self-sacrifice of Australians, exemplified in their unique tradition of community volunteer firefighters, or “firies”.   The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recognized their contribution in a statement which includes: “Workers in the emergency services and volunteers in their own communities are on the front lines of defending people, their homes and community infrastructure. We thank them profusely for their efforts and their courage. They are working heroes.”

australia firefightersAustralia’s Volunteer Firefighters Find It Hard to Pause, Even for Christmas in the New York Times (Dec. 24 2019) describes the self-sacrifice displayed by these volunteers, but it also questions how sustainable such a system can be in such a long-running and widespread disaster. Exhaustion is one constraint; financial necessity to earn money is another.  Only under public pressure did the government finally announce compensation for the volunteers  in December.  The Sydney Morning Herald offers a detailed “Explainer: How the Bushfire Compensation Scheme works”  (Jan. 12), which notes that some union leaders “have called for amendments to the Fair Work Act to ensure workers have the right to paid emergency services leave as part of the National Employment Standards.”  This idea is taken up in “Unions and employers join forces to demand increased bushfire relief for workers and firies”, also in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 12), which highlights the “fine print” limitations for firefighters’ :

“The federal government and some state governments have said they will provide eligible volunteer firefighters with up to $300 per day capped at a total of $6000 as compensation for time off work to fight bushfires, but firies can only claim from day 11 and the hours spent on patrol must align with their normal working hours…This means if a volunteer firefighter normally works from 9am to 5pm, but is out fighting blazes from midday to midnight, they can only claim five hours’ pay.”

Occupational health and safety concerns:

The Australian Council of Trade Unions issued a December call for change in “Laws must adapt to keep workers safe in changing climate” , focussed on the occupational health and safety issues of extreme heat and smoke for all workers.  Their call for change was accompanied by two Fact Sheets:  Smoke Haze – Bushfires and Air Quality  and Working in Heat . Another important occupational health issue, the emotional and psychological toll of such disasters, is described in “Black Saturday firefighters want you to listen to them, not call them ‘heroes‘” from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation  (Jan. 3).

On January 7, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released  this statement and call for government action :

  “No workers should ever be required to work in dangerous environments. Smoke levels are well beyond the hazardous range in huge areas of the country. Any workers, especially those who work outside, who have concerns about their safety should contact their union.

Workers should be aware that the NES provides for unpaid leave for the full period of time that workers are engaged in volunteer firefighting or other emergency service work. Union negotiated Enterprise Bargaining Agreements will also often provide additional paid leave provisions.

In some circumstances, workers will also be able to access personal leave if they are unable to return to work due to being evacuated or having nowhere to live, for instance if they or a family member have suffered mental or physical injury as a result of the fires.

Under no circumstances can a worker or their employer already dealing with this devastating crisis face the added insult of being left without an income or a bill they cannot pay for a service they have not used or received.

To make sure this happens, the Federal Government’s response needs to make it clear that everyone impacted by this crisis is entitled to support and assistance and should not be left worse off.  This should include ensuring that there is comprehensive relief from debt repayments, mortgages and utility bills while families get back on their feet.

Any worker who faces issues with their bank, other lending institutions or who is fired from their job due to the fallout from these fires should immediately contact their union.”

The ACTU has established a Bushfire Relief Fund here , where donations can be made to support union members who may need more than the government support, and another campaign, here, for Australians to volunteer their skills and time in the rebuilding effort.   The National Construction Division of the CFMEU also announced their own $100,000 donation to the bushfire recovery effort in a press release .

australia nasa smokeA few other recommended articles about the Australian Bushfires :  from The Guardian, “We are seeing the very worst of our scientific predictions come to pass in these bushfires” (Jan. 3); “Australia’s fires have pumped out more emissions than 100 nations combined” (MIT Technology Review, Jan. 10) ; “Terror, hope, anger, kindness: the complexity of life as we face the new normal”  (Jan. 11, The Guardian);    “In Australia, the air poses a threat; people are rushing to hospitals in cities choked by smoke (Washington Post, Jan. 12); “Australia’s bushfires offer heated view into longstanding misinformation on climate change” (National Observer, Jan. 7); “Bushfire emergency leads thousands to protest against PM and climate change policies “( Australian Broadcasting Corp.,Jan. 10) , and the latest political development: “Scott Morrison to take proposal for bushfire royal commission to Cabinetreported on January 12 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, also reported as  “Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires” in the New York Times (Jan. 12).  

Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.

Hurricane Harvey survey coverOne recent example which illustrates recurring patterns: on December 5, the  Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation in Texas released the results of a survey about the impacts of Hurricane Harvey . While most of the survey reports on  the loss of homes and cars,  it also measures employment impacts:  46%  of respondents reported that  they or someone else in their household lost job-related income as a result of the storm – through  fewer hours at work (32%), losing a job entirely (12%) or losing income from a small business or unpaid missed days (32%). And as so often is the case, income disruptions affected a greater share of Hispanic (65%) and Black (46%) residents compared to White residents (31%).

Two recent news reports highlight a more surprising story of the California wildfires:   “California Is Running Out of Inmates to Fight Its Fires” in The Atlantic (Dec. 7 2017)  and “Incarcerated women risk their lives fighting California fires. It’s part of a long history of prison labor”  (Oct. 22, 2017) . These articles describe the long-standing practice in California of using prison inmates as firefighters: in the current season,  almost 3,000 of the 9,000 firefighters battling wildfires are inmates, who get a few dollars plus two days off their sentences for each day spent fighting wildfires.

fort_mcmurray-fireThe Fort MacMurray wildfires in northern Alberta in 2016 rank as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, exceeding the previous record, which was the 2013 flooding in Calgary and southern Alberta.  That ranking is based on the  estimate by the Insurance Bureau of Canada   of $3.58 billion;  the Conference Board of Canada also reported on the economic impacts  (free; registration required).   Statistics Canada measured work days lost and employment insurance claims through their Labour Force Survey instrument, and so were able to differentiate effects by sector, sex and age, as location, in two reports:  Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016  (November 2016)  and “Wildfires in northern Alberta affected hours and Employment Insurance beneficiaries”, a section in the Annual Review of the Labour Market, 2016 .

Another assessment of the total financial impact of the  Fort McMurray wildfire estimated the financial impact of the Fort MacMurray fire was $9.9 billion, as reported by the  CBC (January 2017) and the  Toronto Star (January 17).  That research, by two economists from MacEwan University in Edmonton,  was commissioned by the  Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction  , but does not appear to have been published as of December 2017.  Their estimates included  indirect impacts such as the expense of replacing buildings and infrastructure, lost income, and lost profits and royalties in the oilsands and forestry industries.  And they estimate the mental health impacts and  cost of suffering of the firefighters as $3.78 million.

Excellent news reports also described the employment situation – including the government and union support for workers : “ Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo”   in the Globe and Mail  (updated March 2017); “Fort MacMurray smoke halts major oilsands project”  in the National Observer (May 7 2016),  “ Fort McMurray firefighters who slew ‘The Beast’ now battling emotional demons” from CBC News (July 3 2016) ,  and “Resilient but tired: Mental effects of wildfire lingering in Fort McMurray” in The National Observer (Dec. 18 2017).

An Employment Fact Sheet  from  ProBono Law website  answers FAQ’s regarding workers’ rights in Alberta as of May 2016 – such questions as: .  “If business operations are badly affected and an employer has no work for some or all employees, does the employer have to pay them …?” (No); “An employee’s home was badly affected by the fire. Are they entitled to paid or unpaid leave to sort out the personal problems caused by the fire?” (No, employees are not entitled , but some employers do offer such leaves as part of their benefit plans or will offer them if asked.) Future recourse regarding leave provisions may be available as of January 2018, when the Alberta Employment Standards Code is amended to provide new Personal and Family Responsibility Leave of  up to 5 days of job protection per year for personal sickness or short-term care of an immediate family member, which includes attending to personal emergencies.   And failing that, there is always the hope, as described in the Toronto Star, that “Workplaces are adapting to climate change by offering paid extreme weather leave”  (November 14).