Firefighters in the Field: Export to Montana
The weight restriction per person was 65lbs. Will we be located in the mountains? Sleeping in tents? Will we have regular access to power? How many pairs of underwear and socks should I bring? Should I bring extra work boots and workout shoes? Do I have room for a pillow? What is essential when you have to survive for up to 21 days of out a duffel bag? We were at Dunkirk day-base when we were informed that we would be going on an export to Montana. We would be driving down and were to be ready to depart the day after next.
We departed in a torrential downpour at 8 a.m. and it took us a full day to drive the 900 kilometres to Blairmore, Alberta! We met up with the three other crews being exported and the next morning we all drove to the border as a convoy. A blue sky complimented the crisp air of the Rockies as we rolled out of the parking lot and headed west into the lush mountainous topography of British Columbia. Normally I only get to traverse down in that area for leisure, this time I was fortunate enough to do it for work. As our convoy inched closer to the border at Roosville there was a noticeable difference in the climate. The fuels were much drier, the air seemed hotter and the humidity low. Our windows were rolled down and I was starting to perspire as we pulled up to the imaginary line between our countries. I imagined having to stand in line for hours and melting in the heat while we waited for Homeland Security to clear us for entry. Nothing was further from the truth – we were invited into the air-conditioned building and efficiently and expediently vetted and cleared within about twenty minutes.
We received some orientation and training in the afternoon in Kalispell. We were educated on the complexities of jurisdiction, the commonality of their Urban Interface Firefighting environment and an introduction to the fire shelter; a ten-pound layer of thermal tinfoil to keep you from burning up if you are in a burn over situation. In the United States it is mandatory to carry this piece of last-resort equipment on the fireline, however, both north and south of the border it can be seen as a controversial practice in our profession. Many argue that firefighters should have enough situational awareness and foresight to avoid ever being placed in a burn over situation. On the other hand crews that have used these as a last resort were saved by their deployment and were able to live out the rest of their lives. In either case, they are mandatory for all personnel on the fireline in the United States.
Lastly, we were given our assignments. We were assigned to drive to Helena the next morning at 7 a.m. and stay there for the duration of our time in Montana. East Montana was having the most wildfires and Helena was the eastern-most area that we could have been deployed. This was exactly what we wanted to hear!
We arrived in Helena around 10:30 the next morning. Hot and dry are two very accurate descriptors of the environment. We have heard that many soldiers about to be deployed to Afghanistan would be based in this area before departure due to the similarities in climate and topography. I couldn’t agree more. The rolling hills are not quite as mountainous as the Rockies, but are significantly more than what one would imagine a hill to be. Mineral-rich mountain-hills surround the entire area and are covered in large pine or Douglas fir trees while a few are desert-bare with sage brush and small cactus.
It was about 35 degrees Celsius when we arrived and the Relative Humidity (RH – measure of moisture in the air) was only about 10-15. It did not seem that there were many water sources around and fighting fire here would be much different than our home 1,300 kilometres north.
After dropping some of our personal items off at the hotel we made our way to the Central Land Office (CLO) where we would meet up with the Montana crews and relieve our fellow Albertans. We had to become acquainted with their radios, procedure for hooking up the bucket to the helicopter, flight protocol, and fireline expectations. The transition took about an hour and we were ready to be deployed which only took about another hour. We packed into the MT205 and departed south over the mountainous terrain and arrived in Dillon, Montana about an hour later only to find that another crew had arrived at the wildfire first! We were no longer required.
The next day we were dispatched to our first wildfire; the Price Road Fire. By the time we arrived the wildfire had made its way up the topographic features of a large hill and was descending the other side. It was a very large hill covered in very volatile sage brush. We landed at the tail of the wildfire on the east end, exited the machine, hooked up the bucket, and our helicopter was off to begin water operations as we hoisted our packs, grabbed a hand tool and began the upwards hike to the head of the fire.
As we crested the peak there were a number of resources and civilians on scene. Entire families were out with hand tools attempting to slow the flames with rakes and shovels. Municipal and US Forest Service engines were there containing areas of greatest importance. Our crew decided to split up and quickly work the perimeter; chopping burning vegetation, extinguish hot spots, removing perimeter fuels to the centre of the fire, and digging hand line to prevent creeping fires from reaching dangerous flashy fuels.
It was hot – desert heat! I was drenched in sweat before long. Our bodies were still acclimatizing and before long we were all exhausted. The swings of my Pulaski seemed to barely cut the rubbery stalks of the sage brush and 4 litres of water we carry in our packs seemed like a foolishly insignificant amount. The wildfire was heading downhill towards a wheat field. It was time to keep moving.
As my crew members, Latham and Nat, moved with the Montana crews to contain the perimeters towards the houses, I moved with the other boys towards the head of the wildfire. We could see the water trucks had made a formidable barrier on a road at the bottom of the hill to try and prevent the wildfire from jumping the barren hill into the bone-dry crop of wheat. My crew moved down the hill, chopping, scratching, digging. My face brazenly hot as the fire would consume brush. One of the engines had managed to run some hose all the way over the hill and to us. They would spray, we would swing. The water sizzled and evaporated as we worked towards the head. The helicopter was also working from the head and hitting the edges up towards our flank. Bucket after bucket it would get closer until the final remnants of the perimeter were small, smouldering fires.
We slowed the pace down and began walking our perimeter area and chopping into any remaining brush that was smoking. All the while civilians would be running up and thanking us for our work and handing us water bottles. This really was a true community effort and within a couple hours the wildfire was contained and left in the hands of the local crews whilst we flew an hour back to Helena.
The flight back was excellent. Our pilot hugged the rolling mountains of the continental divide. Tall robust Ponderosa Pine and Douglas fir littered the hills. Random mine shafts could be spotted from the air, and sometimes old mining towns connected to civilization by elusive rugged roads would appear below us in valleys. The helicopter hovered the contours of the landscape, raising up a ridge on the tree tops and then the ground would disappear a thousand or more feet below as the machine shot over a cliff and out towards the next. To experience these freeing moments in life are very gratifying and make me thankful that I do what I do.
The next day we had a dispatch late in the day for the Teston Road wildfire. The day after we had a 5 a.m. dispatch that ended up being cancelled at 6:30 a.m., but then later that day ended up working on the Fisher wildfire. Both were similar in the sense that there were many responding resources from the DNRC, US Forest Service, and municipality. And once again all resources cooperated very well together and worked as a cohesive unit to extinguish the wildfires efficiently.
After one of these wildfires, I can’t remember which; we stopped at the Super 1 store to buy lunch for the next day. We were dirty from work and had just grabbed a cart and entered the store. A young man maybe 15 or 16 in a tidy uniform came walking up to me with a dollar bill in his hand extended towards me. “You folks look like you’ve been working hard – why don’t you go to the frozen section and get yourself an Icee?” He had a confident demeanor about him with young idealism in his eyes. Though I had never had one, I felt compelled to let this young man by me a sugary Icee. I thanked him for his kindness but did not let on how touched I was by this compassionate gesture! But it wasn’t just this one time, it was many times. Daily, we would be stopped on the street, at the hotel, in the grocery store. People would walk up and thank us for the work we were doing, to shake our hands, to go out of their way to show appreciation. We even had one of our meals anonymously paid for in a restaurant on one of our first nights. It really pulled at heart strings.
Time passed quickly, as it tends to do. Before long it was our last day and we bid our farewells to our new friends and colleagues. However, the Aviation Operations Manager, Chris, had one last task for us. We were to go to the Gates of the Mountains and take the boat ride up the Missouri River until it arrived at Mann Gulch, the infamous spot that claimed the lives of 13 firefighters on August 5, 1949. The boat ride gives a tour of the beautiful area founded by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and gives great scenic views of the impressive river valley, the trip ended six miles upriver at the area so many of us have heard about. On that fateful day the Missouri smokejumpers responded to a small lightning fire on the sides of the gulch. After safely landing and starting to work the wildfire the extreme conditions entrapped them and forced them to retreat uphill. Only two made it up and over the ridge. One survived by lighting a grass fire ahead of the main flame to burn out the fuels around him. The rest perished. It was a sobering moment to be there, to hear the story from the someone who knew it well, and to remind ourselves of the dangers we face when responding to a wildfire. This was a good moment to have on our last day of deployment. We drove back to Kalispell the next day to get debriefed and meet up with the convoy we came down with. The next morning held one last surprise for us before we got to the border.
Four years ago, I took a cross continent motorcycle trip. Whilst travelling through Montana I attempted to drive Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, it was June 27 and the road was still covered in snow from multiple avalanches that year. I was thoroughly disappointed at the time as I had heard many times about how beautiful a drive it was! Lucky for me, I was getting another chance and I can tell you now that none of the things I heard were exaggerated! Our path back to Edmonton took us over this fabled road, and even though I was in the passenger seat of a Ford F-450 and not in the driver seat of my Triumph Bonneville it was every bit as special as I thought it would be. The road was blasted into two sides of the mountains and culminates at its highest point on Logan’s Pass. The views were spectacular. I was like a little boy filled with excitement and an ear-to-ear smile the whole time.
All in all, we fought four wildfires in Montana, made some good friends, and learned quite a bit about the different processes used south of the border. It was a real privilege and honour to go down and represent our country in such a fashion. I can honestly say that the firefighters we worked with were nothing but the best of caliber. I can only hope we get to work with them again in the future and welcome the opportunity to return the hospitality we received for the wonderful folks in Montana!