Firefighters in the Field: Wildfire Season Has Begun
The snow has melted and excitement is in the air! Everyone on the Edson Unit Crew has been counting down the days to the 2018 wildfire season. People on the crew tend to go their own way during the winter but it’s always great to see all the familiar faces when training arrives. Coming back to base always feels like coming back to a family. Most wildfire crew positions are seasonal jobs, which gives everyone the freedom to pursue what they want in the winter.
One of our sub-leaders, Ryan Landels, had the opportunity to work on a wildfire crew in Australia, fighting fires in the eucalyptus. Another member, Collin Messelink, travelled around South America as well as worked as an alpine ski guide in Iceland. It was awesome catching up and hearing how everyone’s different adventures went.
As we geared up to the start of the wildfire season, training became our focus. Nothing is left to chance, as all aspects of the job become routine so we can perfect the skills necessary to succeed when we are faced with fighting wildfires.
One major way we get crews ready for anything they may encounter is through our member and leader training programs. I was lucky enough to help out as a mentor with the leaders training course held at the Hinton Training Centre earlier this year. While the member training is dedicated to new recruits eager to begin their first year as wildland firefighters, the leaders training course is tailored towards members with previous years of wildfire experience who will be transitioning into leading wildfire crews of their own across Alberta.
The course consisted of nine days of classroom sessions from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in addition to actively participating in field training labs and study sessions, often pushing into the late evening. The most difficult aspect of the leaders course is waking up early every morning for an hour of grueling fitness starting at 6 a.m. sharp. My role was to help draw on my wildfire experience to help relate that information to practical life situations on the fireline, along with leading fitness sessions in the mornings. So much responsibility lies on the crew leaders’ shoulders during the wildfire season, so the expectations for the training course are extremely high both physically and mentally.
A major skill a leader will have to master is the ability to assess a fire properly. When a firefighting crew gets dispatched to a wildfire during the summer fire season, it’s the leader’s responsibility to sit in the front seat of the helicopter and assess how and when to communicate all essential information back to the duty officer in the fire centre. Things like the values at risk, fire size, rate of fire spread, fire behavior, and additional resources needed (such as airtankers, extra helicopters, or heavy equipment) need to be assessed and passed along. Pulling this off in an effective and efficient manner ensures an optimal outcome is achieved in properly fighting the fire. This can become very stressful, especially when dealing with a high intensity fire as it’s up to the crew leader to make those important calls.
The Hinton Training Centre offers amazing training opportunities to master the skills necessary to become a crew leader. One element of the training involves simulation assessments. Individuals get the opportunity to sit down and watch videos of previous fires that have been recorded from the front seat of a helicopter, showing the moment of being dispatched all the way up to landing near the fire. The goal is to have the members go through the motions as if it were a real life dispatch, all while properly assessing and communicating back and forth through the built-in radio at the training centre. They say practice makes perfect, and although nothing will supplement real life experience, this is about as good as it can get when it comes to developing your skills and being prepared for when the real situation arises. The instructors at the school could not be more supportive and helpful in coming up with constructive criticism, and always making themselves available for any problems or questions any member may have. From up and coming crew leaders, to mentors and instructors, it’s awesome to see so many individuals who are so passionate about what they love to do.
I’m looking forward to working hard with the Edson Unit Crew over the coming months and working side-by-side with all the new leaders and members across the province!
Until next time, keep crushing it!