Firefighter in the Field: Welcome back Natalie!

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By: Natalie, Helitack Member

Spring in Alberta – never ceases to surprise. In my five years with Alberta Wildfire, each spring proves different. I can remember hot years, dry years and of course wet years. The one thing that has stayed constant is the people. Sure people come and go, but the type of people is pretty consistent. Individuals that are dedicated and passionate contribute to the family that is wildfire management. This season, I am on a Helitack crew, which is a four person firefighting crew. Our objective is to respond to all new wildfire starts. We get placed in the remote locations, airstrips, lookout towers and remote fuel caches across the province. We are hidden in a little shack to keep you away from the elements of the forest standing by waiting for that wildfire call, days can span 10 hours, depending on hazard and lightning.

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We are usually on five-minute getaway, which means when we get the call we have five minutes to get into the helicopter and go. We train and wait, going over safety briefings, discussing weather conditions current and forecasted for the next week, we analyze everything from fire potential to fire size and behaviour, fire weather to fuel type.

I love it. I love the adrenaline rush when they call our helitack crew over the radio. It’s go time! You quickly scramble to get those GPS coordinates and get into the helicopter. Our crew, based out of the Calgary Forest Area is on export to the Fort McMurray Forest Area. As initial attack, our job is to be ready for any new wildfire starts.

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Thousands of wildland firefighters have been working around the clock, trying to get ahead of the Fort McMurray wildfire. From the people on the fire line, to the people behind the radio, submitting timesheets and placing orders for much-needed supplies, the wildfire management family has never been stronger than what I have seen in my short time in the Fort McMurray area this year. Now, it is a strong family to begin with, but a wildfire event of this magnitude brings about a whole new level of team work. A team I am proud to be a part of.

Fort McMurray holds a special place in my heart. In 2011, I started in the Fort McMurray Fire Centre as a Wildfire Dispatcher. It was one heck of a season. It was the year the Richardson backcountry fire started, I remember the long hours, being so out of my element, but with those long and stressful times, I could always rely on my coworkers. Staff stands out the most to me, my dispatch supervisor, Nancy Sutton, who I admire the most during those days where we have multiple wildfire starts.

Other dispatchers are such professionals over the radio, keeping their cool, supporting each other and the whole team with precision. They’re truly an impressive bunch! What makes this organization so great is the moral support provided by every person. These expert communicators were in the fire centre the day the Fort McMurray wildfires started and are still there, behind-the-scenes dispatching and organizing the firefighters in the field. Each role plays a crucial part in fighting every wildfire, even more so when a wildfire impacts a community as it has in Fort McMurray.

I’m proud to be a part of Alberta’s wildfire family, the men and women that give their all to be tested beyond imagination on this wildfire and the wildfires across the province. All have a common goal to giver’ and come home safe. From the long hours on the line to the long days away from their families, they have earned appreciation and gratitude from communities far and near. To all the emergency responders to the helicopters in the sky, keep your head up and stay safe out there, the country is beyond proud of you and I sure am!

The news cameras will start to leave the area, but it isn’t over yet. Alberta wildland firefighters will be on the ground for months to help rebuild the community. Please donate to the Red Cross foundation for Fort McMurray to give your support.

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