It was early August 2022, when Michelle Wigmore was on her way back from leading a crew of wildland firefighters near Grande Prairie, Alta. They stopped for a coffee in Fox Creek, about 230 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

“There was a ‘help wanted’ sign up and the wage that they were offering at the Tim Hortons was higher than all our crew members,” said Wigmore in an interview with CBC’s What On Earth.

While they made a joke of it at the time, Wigmore — who has about three decades of experience fighting wildfires in Ontario and Alberta — says it felt unfair when she considered the amount of training and work involved in the job.

Low wages are one of the reasons Wigmore and others say wildland firefighters in Alberta are not returning to the seasonal jobs, resulting in a dwindling number of experienced firefighters and creating potential safety risks to personnel and the public.

Other reasons include “lack of benefits [and] lack of potential opportunity in the organization,” said a former wildland firefighter, whom CBC News has agreed to call by one of his initials, D, because of concerns speaking out could harm his livelihood.