Wildfires put heat on rookie forestry minister from London area

Jennifer Bieman

Call it a trial by fire for a cabinet rookie — the London-area minister in charge of Ontario’s forests — as more than 40 wildfires rage out of control in the province’s north, the worst forest fire season in years.

Barely a month into the job, Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Jeff Yurek is leading a ministry that’s battling more than 140 wildfires in northeastern and northwestern Ontario — a situation so dire, about 600 firefighters from across Canada, the United States and Mexico have been called in to help.

That’s on top of the 800 ministry staff working around the clock to get the fires contained and extinguished, Yurek said.

But while other new ministers in Premier Doug Ford’s government are spending the summer getting the lay of the land, the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP has been forced to not only study up on his new portfolio, but oversee the ministry as it springs into action.

“It’s like being back in university again where you’re there for the first few weeks of school and they’re just downloading all this information on you,” said Yurek, adding he’s still building his team.

“It’s a transition period. . . . There’s such a huge amount of information. This ministry is so diverse.”

The so-called Parry Sound 33 fire has raged for more than a week, crossing a rail line and inching closer to a section of the Trans Canada Highway. Smoke from the blaze is threatening visibility in the area and the flames have so far destroyed a swath of brush double the size of Woodstock.

So far this season, 831 fires have broken out in Ontario, far surpassing the 2017 total of 243 and the 10-year annual average of 511. They’re being sparked by lightning, stoked by dry conditions and spread with steady winds, Yurek said.

Forest fires are something of a foreign issue in Southwestern Ontario, most of whose great stands of forest were long ago cleared for farming.

But Yurek is already getting an up-close look at how the fires are monitored and fought. The new minister visited the command centre in Parry Sound Friday with the premier and the area MPP.

“It’s amazing the talent and the strength of the people running the command centre and the front-line firefighters,” Yurek said. “It’s quite a team out there.”

A three-term MPP, Yurek was best known as the Progressive Conservative health critic under the previous government, a role he took after a year-long stint as the natural resources critic in 2014-15.

Even though he’s a Queen’s Park veteran, Yurek admits his new cabinet post comes with a lot to learn. He’s getting briefings at least twice a day from ministry staff and said the organization’s top bureaucrat, deputy minister Bill Thornton, has been a big help too.

“He’s quite a knowledgeable individual and open to working for Ontarians and I think we’re going to have a good relationship going forward,” Yurek said.

Though the main focus now is on the wildfire situation, Yurek said he’s looking back to the PC campaign promise of efficiencies and cost-savings while considering his ministry’s long-term direction.

“They’re professionals, they know what do to and we’re making sure that they have the resources to do the job they’ve been trained to do,” he said. “They need partners, not barriers.”

– With files by Canadian Press