Firefighter in the Field
As if returning from a long hibernation, I pull into Grayling Firebase, just south of Fort McMurray. It is April 3 and there is still snow on the ground, much more than there was in Toronto when I left four days earlier. I am warmly met by some of my friends and colleagues who come outside to greet me in the cold weather. Like those who returned to Fort McMurray after the fire almost a year ago, it feels good to be home after some time away.
Every year begins with our grueling WFX fitness test on the first day of work. You carry a variety of heavy things over a ramp for what seems like an infinite number of times until your legs burn and you can feel your saliva turn into battery acid. Nobody looks graceful whilst seeping sweat from their pours and sucking wind, but everyone shows heart and inspires the next person up to do better. My lungs are gasping as I sprint the last stretch while pulling a ton of weight. I cross the line and collapse on all fours as my Leader drops the stop watch beside me. I see it stopped with a time of 10:53; a personal best.
After fitness testing we sign out our gear and uniforms. Our warehouse staff run a tight ship and know every bolt and screw in their inventory and ensure the I’s are dotted and the T’s get crossed on all their paperwork. Being my third time through, I know the drill, what to look for, and how to make it a smooth process. The green bottoms and yellow top fit perfectly. I take a moment and look in the mirror and feel a sense of pride to don the Nomex uniform for another season.
The coming year brings with it an abundance of chainsaw work to be done. Last year’s wildfire caused many unstable trees which can present hazards to the public. Coming into this season, one of my goals was to attain my level three chainsaw certificate which would give me the ability and designation to fall trees and deal with some of these hazards. Luckily our district scheduled some saw courses during my first week. After our classroom sessions, we move to the field to practice cuts: the humbolt, conventional, open face, bore cut, et all. We practise our cuts on bolts of wood about two-thirds the size of your average firefighter and we use them well. High engine revolutions and sawdust fill the air as we attempt the cuts with the precision of Michelangelo sculpting David.
After two days, I have a bolt I deem ready to be judged. The two instructors come over. The marker comes out, fingers point and touch this cut and that edge, and Rory’s pensive eyes glance back and forth with Joe while the two engage in minor debate. Then as they look over at me, I am reassured by friendly smiles and the classic yet unmistakable phrase ‘great work’. I am then tasked with falling a hazardous tree. Using the retained teachings and my abundance of experience I set to my task. I gauge the safety of my area, assess the weather, the lean and condition of the tree, overhead hazards, the cut I will use, the direction of the fall; every tree is an individual circumstance that requires respect and attentiveness. My cuts carve into the wood like shears through paper. I move behind the tree and begin my cut that allows the tree to begin the tipping process. My cut stops short of severing the hingewood; my safety mechanism the tree uses to guide its fall. I lock the saw and back away as the mighty spruce becomes a one-way pendulum in mid-swing. A tree does make a sound when it falls in the forest and it is a satisfying sound when done correctly. I finish by bucking up the tree into smaller pieces. My instructors finish with awarding me a level three chainsaw certification.
A few days later I joined two other members of our district and made the long drive down to Hinton for 10 days of Leadership training. The Leaders course is run out of Hinton Training Centre (HTC) in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Every morning before the sun comes up, we exhaust our bodies and burn hundreds of calories before breakfast. Our days are filled in both the classroom and outdoor labs to finetune our craft. We take what we know and enhance it so that we can perform at peak levels when it is most required of us. We share our knowledge and personal experiences with each other. We learn about weather, navigation, troubleshooting our gear, communications, leading. It was said to me that this is as close to the army as you can get without being shot at. I tend to agree with this, except we are also encouraged to grow a beard.
Before I came to wildfire management I sat at a desk and found very limited happiness or purpose in the work that I did. Fighting wildfires in Alberta has been an exceptional and meaningful experience. I feel privileged to be supported in my advancement and to be taught the skills required for me to succeed in the future. Not only the coming wildfire season, but for many more to come. And though we do not know what this season has in store for us, we are preparing ahead of time. Preparing in anticipation of the moment when the dispatch call comes over the radio. Preparing for having to hover exit out of a helicopter into the ice-cold water of an isolated swamp. Preparing to lay hose line through thick and unforgiving spruce. Preparing to make good decisions in those imperative moments.
The fire season is upon us and today we are ready!