Firefighters in the Field: Oiling the Machine

By: Alex

Fresh from months of hibernation, we eagerly address the early season tasks to best prepare us for the wildfire season. Trucks require maintenance, as do our tools and brains. Therefore, adequate steps are taken to ensure they are all well-oiled machines in serviceable condition for the tasks that lie ahead. Wildfires are in the mail, postage paid, and we’re eagerly waiting at the door for their inevitable delivery.

With staggered start dates, we mixed up crews in the early part of the season. There is good diversity and we all get a feel for working with different individuals; some familiar, some new. The chainsaws came out at Gregoire Lake Provincial Park as we spent days cutting down hazard trees that would pose a risk to campers.  It’s funny how your body becomes familiar with an object like a chainsaw: the ergonomic distribution of weight from the handle, an immediate balanced stance, the lucidity of the trigger under your finger. My first couple of cuts were far from medal-worthy. My next few would at least put me in contention. As we progress our way through the campsites that were ravaged by the Horse River Fire of 2016, the dead trees continuously fall safely and controlled to the ground. Perhaps one of these trees would have fallen close to an unsuspecting camper; perhaps it would have just fallen of its own accord in the dead of winter. In any case, it’s gratifying to see the physical implementation of a safety plan and to think that our work has benefited the public that use this park.

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Hazard reduction burns are another way we utilize our time and resources in the early season. It’s a preventative measure the can greatly reduce the rates of spread a wildfire can have in its initial stages. Removing the flammability potential of the fuel before it has a chance to ignite on its own can drastically reduce or eliminate a creeping wildfire from reaching the dense forest in the fragility of the “spring dip”. To do this our office looks at strategic areas with the highest risk of human-caused wildfires and we go in before fate has a chance to intervene. We plan our attack and type of controlled suppression, light our drip torches, and in a smooth and calculated manner, ignite the finely-cured dead grass. It’s truly an impressive sight to watch the miniature strands of grass combine with the heat of our dripped flame be viciously fed by the oxygen-rich wind; the energy creates flame lengths upwards of 2 metres from the base in a violent outpouring of chemical reaction.

It would be easy to just sit and watch with a transfixed-fascination, however we begin to smother and wet the edges and harness this natural occurrence to our whim. Once controlled, we light another line to burn into the first, and another after that. Slowly but surely, areas the size of football fields have their natural wicks removed and we extinguish all burning remnants. Any ignition source will have an impossible task trying to reignite an area that has already burned. Perhaps we saved an area, a community, or another Horse River Fire from occurring because of this hazard reduction burn. Perhaps we just removed some dry grass. In any case, once again, an early season safety strategy was implemented and we are able to take comfort in the fact that our work was completed safely and to the benefit of the community.

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Our normal crews have now come together and we have started our season in full swing. We have had minimal wildfires in the Fort McMurray Forest Area, but the few we have had were fought both quickly and effectively. A few of our colleagues have been flying down to the Lac La Biche area to help on the slew of wildfires that have sparked up just south of us. We all help out where we can in this organization; whether you are the crew tasked with holding the fireline near a community or searching for the last burning hotspot in the middle of the boreal forest, at the end of the day, we are all looking to accomplish the same objectives. My crew is comprised of three outstanding individuals in whom I have the utmost confidence. We have practiced our chainsaw proficiency, worked on fireline operations, come close to the flames with hazard reduction burns, and been certified for hover-exiting from our helicopters. We are ready to chase that wildfire wherever it ignites.

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Until the next dispatch,

Alex

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