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Union, opposition sounding alarm after N.L. had only 1 water bomber available last weekend | CBC News

An orange aircraft releases water below it.
Newfoundland and Labrador has four air worthy water bombers. This past weekend, there was only enough crew available to safely fly one. (Submitted by Bruce Mactavish)

Newfoundland and Labrador had enough available workers to safely fly only one of its four provincial water bombers on Monday, leading opposition politicians and union leaders to criticize government planning.

The province requires a minimum of 12 pilots to operate at full capacity, according to Transportation and Infrastructure Minister John Abbott, but only eight positions are currently filled.

With maintenance issues, a shortage of available pilots and water bombers being used to fight fires in other provinces, only one bomber was available over the weekend and into Monday.

“I’ve had my fingers and my toes crossed praying for rain,” Labrador West MHA Jordan Brown told CBC News Monday.

“We’ve known about this issue, and government’s known about this issue, for so long…. We have one plane. And we have a massive geography to cover.”

Brown said the province is at fault for allowing the situation to happen, and said more needs to be done to make sure Newfoundland and Labrador is competitive in the recruiting and retention of pilots.

That starts with wages, according to Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle. The union, also known as NAPE, represents all of the province’s water bomber pilots along with ground crew.

“We’ve lost several now to competing jurisdictions and to private industry,” Earle said of the pilots. “We’re down to now only about 50 per cent of the normal crew that we would have.”

A total of 89 forest fires have burned in Newfoundland and Labrador this season, covering nearly 22,000 hectares of forest according to provincial data. The areas of current highest risk include southeastern Labrador and areas east of Gander toward Terra Nova.

A collage of two photos. On the left, a man wearing a suit stands with a stern look. On the right, a man sits in a home office.
NAPE President Jerry Earle, left, and NDP MHA Jordan Brown are raising the alarm about a lack of available water bombers in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The province’s water bombers have been key in helping fight fires in Quebec and Nova Scotia this year. While Earle says that’s important, he added more needs to be done to make sure this province is prepared as a hot and dry summer continues.

“This work is stressful at the best of times, but right now it’s unbelievably stressful,” he said. “The risks are quite substantial.”

Raises could be coming

Speaking with CBC News on Monday, Abbott said the lack of available planes is caused by a global pilot shortage and pilots calling in sick in recent days. Once those on sick leave return, he said, the province should have three available water bombers.

He said the province is put in this predicament from time to time, which makes him “obviously nervous and concerned.”

Abbott said he has also met with pilots to make sure they know they are supported, and is preparing to offer big wage increases to make Newfoundland and Labrador competitive with other provinces.

A smiling man wears a blue suit with a yellow striped tie.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister John Abbott said the province is working to address a wage gap in the sector between Newfoundland and Labrador and other Canadian provinces. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

“We feel confident that if we can address the pay issue, that we will be able to recruit,” Abbott said.

“People have left the service, left the province because of pay. We think if we are competitive, that they will come back … we’re confident in that regard.”

Asked if the increases would be in the neighbourhood of 20 per cent — which Earle says would put Newfoundland and Labrador on par with provinces like Quebec — Abbott replied that those were the types of figures the province was looking at.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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