In the era of TV, movies and social media, firefighting sees many portrayals — of these, few seem to be accurate.
I was able to spend the afternoon of Sept. 3 with BC Wildfire Service personnel based out of their camp in Keremeos. Here, I was given a glimpse into what these firefighters actually face as they battle blaze after blaze during B.C.’s wildfire season.
“Everyone is from everywhere. We’ve got people from Ontario, Alberta, United States, and Australia,” said Stephen Kada, who hales from Australia but is working as a wildfire information officer with BCWS for the time-being.
According to Kada, almost 350 personnel are split between their camp and the one in Merritt. Though most are sleeping out of tents for accommodations, contrary to popular belief, these personnel are well-equipped with services within and outside of the camp.
Kada was eager to have me visit the camp and take a helicopter tour of the nearby Snowy Mountain, Old Tom Creek and Cool Creek wildfires. Now that the days are cooling off and fires are starting to die down, the camp personnel are able to relax more and take pride in their hard work.
“We want to try and (show off) some of the ‘wins’ we’ve had and (give) a bit of reassurance to residents,” said Kada.
And wins they’ve had. While they may not be charging head first into a roaring forest fire, these men and women work long hours with inherent danger looming to ensure these fires do as little damage as possible. I was told that the normal “shift” for a firefighter is two weeks on and three days off, often working longer than 12 hours days.
This process involves the establishment of containment or control lines, which requires bulldozers and other heavy equipment machinery cutting a path into the trees and around the perimeter of the fire. From there, personnel try to “hold” the fire as it burns down, monitoring its spread due to winds and heat. When the terrain is too treacherous for this equipment, air support is used to continuously drop buckets of water on the blaze until it’s within range of safer ground.
To give me a better understanding of their work this summer, they took me over what remains of the 15,565 hectare Snowy Mountain wildfire, which was first spotted July 17.
Crews faced brutally steep and loose terrain with this wildfire’s location, so much of the suppression efforts involved helicopters making bucket drops. I was explained that depending on the distance to the nearest water source, these helicopters could make 50 to 60 bucket drops a day.
This fire also spread quite close to homes in the area, but thanks to the tireless efforts of these personnel, no damage was incurred.
After circling around the smouldering flames, which delved into what they called Snehumption and Bullock Drainages, we then headed towards the Old Tom Creek wildfire. This 1,087 hectare wildfire was discovered on Aug. 15 and is also starting to die down.
Despite the increased winds the area has been experiencing, this fire has been behaving as the crews would like. Again, crews must rely heavily on the support of aircrafts as they must travel into remote areas to battle this blaze.
Finally, we ventured to the Cool Creek wildfire which is, in fact, not dying. Still classified as out of control, this 12,685 hectare blaze was discovered Aug. 15 and still requires crew intervention.
Luckily, crews are better able to address this fire as they can slowly start to turn their attention away from the the two aforementioned fires. Though the terrain for this fire is more favourable, its widespread reaches is what challenges the crews.
Upon my return to the camp, I was able to discern fact from fiction about working as a firefighter from Glen Burgess, incident commander at the Placer Complex.
Fact: Camaraderie is a huge part of the job.
“The relationships and the camaraderie that develops is a big reason why people get into this,” said Burgess. “At the end of the day, those relationships become lifelong ones.”
“You’re spending 70 to 100 days together at a camp, working and sleeping and eating together, so you really get to know these people.”
Myth: The personnel are lacking in supplies and access to service.
“The camp is full-service as far as the basics — eating, sleeping, showering. We have first aid services, medical services, that kind of stuff,” said Burgess.
“Things like stress and fatigue are managed off-site. When we start to see those things occurring, we start to provide those teams with things like days off and rest.”
“Our program has a group of staff from within our ministry and government called the Critical Incident Stress Program. So when we start to see some of those fatigue or stress issues come in, it’s like a peer-to-peer thing with training that can help them decompress.”
“Our people are very well looked after, and I think there’s a bit of a misconception that these poor guys are not getting what they need,” said Burgess.
Fact: The operations of firefighting are becoming more and more universal.
“Whether we’re from Alberta or Australia or whatever, after a few days, we get it. We all follow a very similar structure, that’s what the Incident Command System (ICS) is about,” said Burgess. “We use common nomenclature, so when we talk to each other with understand how the organization works.”
“It brings structure and organization, so you can just bring people in and tell them who their strike team leader is and who they report to and they know what that means.”
Myth: Firefighters in this area must be able to scale mountains for their job.
“We don’t work on the steepest, nastiest terrain. It’s a bit misleading to look at this hillside and go ‘How are we going to fight that fire?’” said Burgess.
Myth: Firefighters put every fire out.
“We just don’t physically have the resources to put every fire out, nor do we have the need,” said Burgess. “For the last 100 years we have suppressing every fire we can get to.”
“We can’t fight every fire and there’s no need to fight every one, we prioritize them. It’s about managing the protection of life and property, and our own lives.”
Fact: Firefighters deeply appreciate the kind words and messages they are sent from people throughout the province.
“Honestly, people putting out signs, those kinds of things are awesome. We take pictures of them and spread them around,” said Burgess.
“We hear the vocal minority … that is really, really negative, and when (we) constantly hear that we’re doing such a poor job, it’s hard on (us) and it’s really trying,” said Burgess. “So any positive pieces we see on social media we try to show our staff that we are supported.”
“We appreciate any show of public support, we accept that there are naysayers, it’s important to know that for the public out there supporting us with signs and posts on social media, we do read it and catch it,” said Burgess.
While this is not an all-inclusive look into the life of a firefighter, hopefully this will shed some light onto the topic for those unfamiliar with their efforts (like I previously was).
From myself and the rest of the Black Press staff, thank you to all the firefighters working tirelessly throughout B.C. to keep us safe.
Jordyn Thomson is a reporter with the Penticton Western News
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