As wildfire season begins, Thompson fire department also grappling with arsons, vacancies

As Manitoba enters what is feared will be another severe wildfire season, the largest city in the province’s north is already dealing with dozens of fires — but these ones are being deliberately set.

Since the snow has melted in Thompson, the city’s fire chief, Steve Molloy, estimates the department has already responded to 20 to 30 arson calls in and around the city.

“What’s been happening is we have a person or persons going around and deliberately starting old couches, mattresses, things have been put outside various buildings deliberately on fire,” he told CBC.

“The problem with that is it puts a huge strain on an already strained resource.”

A full staff at the Thompson fire department is 24 firefighters-paramedics, but currently there are five vacancies, meaning the department is rotating a staff of 19.

That doesn’t impact the community or emergency response time, Molloy said — rather, the impact is being absorbed by staff.

“In the last six to eight months, when we started having the vacancies, membership have really stepped up and covered it off,” Molloy said.

That means a lot of overtime for Thompson’s firefighters, including 24-hour shifts, challenges getting annual leave approvals, and people in administrative roles stepping into operational roles — including the fire chief, who wore a uniform on Tuesday morning.

“I mean, time off is basically a unicorn now. They don’t get time off,” said Molloy.

The demand is causing burnout within the unit, he said.

a firefighter jacket.
Thompson emergency responders are trained as firefighters and paramedics. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC)

He recalled a young firefighter in Thompson who handed in his resignation last year, saying he did not expect to have the workload he did.

“He basically said he was done — he was burnt out,” Molloy said. 

Last year, the department saw over 9,000 calls for fire and ambulance — fires accounted for about six per cent of the calls, while the other 94 per cent were ambulance calls.

The number of calls has been increasing since 2000, according to a 2020 year end statistics memo shared by the fire captain with the city.

In 2000, there were 2,459 calls for emergency medical services and fire. The number had climbed to 4,518 by 2010, and to 7,354 by 2020, according to the memo.

“We’re dealing with EMS calls and we’re dealing with those life and death matters all the time, and then [deliberate fires] get thrown at us. When it could have been completely unavoidable, you know, it affects the crew,” Molloy said.

The fire department recently reported that in the first four months this year, it had already responded to 331 calls related to substance abuse, including withdrawal and overdose.

Resource pool for firefighters ‘dry’: chief

During a city committee meeting last month, Molloy said the department has hired a new firefighter-paramedic, along with three auxiliary firefighters — casual workers who are called in when needed.

Recruiting is part of the solution, but so is retention, said Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook.

New firefighter-paramedics are eager to move north of the 56th parallel for the experience, but after a couple of years, those same firefighters return to the south, she said.

“They want to get closer to home, be closer to families — so a lot of them come to Thompson because they know in six months to a year, they’ll have enough training that they can go other places and get promotions,” Smook told CBC.

A woman sits in an office.
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook says retention is a key piece to keeping the department staffed. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC)

Alleviating pressure on the department needs several approaches.

The fire chief is hopeful for a new agreement with Shared Health that could bring new paramedics to the department.

The department’s original agreement with Shared Health expired in 2019, Molloy told CBC, but the department and city have been in discussion with Shared Health for a new one.

In an emailed statement, a Shared Health spokesperson said discussions between the provincial organization and the city over a new EMS agreement are “ongoing,” and it expects a new agreement “will be finalized in the coming months.”

But even with a new agreement, Molloy said it would still take time to get recruits.

“The resource pool with respect to firefighters and fire-paramedics — it’s dry,” Molloy said.

‘Innovative proposal’ for training: UCN

A paramedic training program at the University College of the North, which has campuses in Thompson and The Pas, is also being proposed.

“We actually have a very innovative proposal in front of the government that would see 16 paramedic seats at the Thompson campus,” said UCN faculty of health dean Helga Bryant.

The proposal asks the province for funding for the program, which would require classroom space, an ambulance, medical equipment and three instructors.

an ambulance sits outside the fire department in thompson.
An ambulance in Thompson. A Shared Health spokesperson said discussions between the provincial organization and the city over a new EMS agreement are ‘ongoing,’ and it expects a new agreement ‘will be finalized in the coming months.’ (Jenna Dulewich/CBC)

There is no timeline on when UCN will hear back on the proposal, but if it’s approved, Bryant said the college could start on the program “very quickly.”

In the meantime, the fire department is focused on educating youth and residents in Thompson about the dangers and consequences of arson — including severe injuries or death, or the possibility anyone over the age of 12 could be charged.

“The kids may think it’s funny — they may like seeing the trucks come with the sirens, and hearing and seeing all the commotion and what have you,” Molloy said.

“But at the same token, I mean, if you’re unaware, we’re gonna make you aware.”