Firefighters in the Field – Busy Times in Lac La Biche
I’m really excited to have this second blog up, thank you for checking it out.
It’s been almost two full shifts since you’ve heard from me and with that time has come a multitude of incredible experiences. We left off when things were picking up; high hazards, fire bans across the province, and numerous crews placed on rapid response. All for good reason too; after a very precise weather forecast called for lightning storms with little rain, the Lac La Biche Forest Area saw a major increase in wildfire starts.
It started off with our crew being stationed at Round Hill day base. A day base is a place were crews can fly in and station to be closer for response. While we were there a thunderstorm rolled through with lots of lightning activity and high winds, which caused multiple wildfire starts. The game was afoot and our crew was ready for some action.
Dispatch began assigning resources and crews to the wildfires. We got our mission for a wildfire near an old logging operation. The wildfire burned for about 20 minutes but with the wind dying down we were able to get a good jump on it, attacking the perimeter. Our lack of a water source meant that we had to go at it with hand tools and saws, digging and cutting a control line around the perimeter. A control line is essentially pulling the burning and burnt debris into the black, away from the green burnable fuel, creating a dirt barrier between them.
As we were working on the flank, an Electra airtanker was dispatched to drop its 11,365-litre payload of fire retardant onto the head of the wildfire. From there our crew continued to work the perimeter and call in water bucket drops with our helicopter on hot spots, which coincidently we had done in training that morning. It was great foresight from our crew leader, who is also called our Spotter.
Despite the rain from all the storm activity the wildfire danger was still extreme in the following days, and our crew was prepared for a quick response.
We got another dispatch to a wildfire which had started near the Athabasca River. Once we got to the wildfire we found a landing spot at the edge of a lake. We hooked up our helicopters’ bucket so the pilot could begin fighting the wildfire. Our crew began expanding the landing spot while two more crews were dropped off. The weather and wildfire behaviour were not in our favour this time though. With multiple helicopters bucketing and airtankers trying to box in the blaze with fire retardant, it showed no signs of slowing down. The wildfire jumped one of the retardant lines and the crews on the ground were pulled off; unfortunately there was nothing more we could do for now.
The day wasn’t over for RAP 8 though. As we were flying back to base we stumbled across a brand new wildfire start. It started next to a big cut line, so we landed there and got our helicopter set up for bucketing. A few nearby Helitack crews were brought in and their machines began bucketing as well. With the three helicopters all dropping on the wildfire we began to hike in with tools. Once we got there the wildfire had been almost knocked down completely. The next day coming back to that wildfire we rappelled in and had our equipment lowered to us from the helicopter by our spotter; this is referred to as a cargo deployment. We finished building our perimeter, sectioned off ‘grids’ within the wildfire to ensure it was completely out, and called it extinguished. We prepped our gear bags for a cargo extraction then hiked back out.
The ability for rappel crews to access remote wildfires via rappelling while being able to deploy and extract our gear bags is a massive advantage; one tactic we’re happy to utilize when needed.
Our next assignment a few days later involved returning to the wildfire that got away from us; it was brought under control by airtankers and helicopters, so our command wanted to get crews on the ground. Fortunately for my crew, access to the wildfire was poor with no landing zones, so we got to spend the last few days of our shift rappelling into the area and cutting helipads for other crews. It may not seem like much, but it was a blast rappelling multiple times a day and running the chainsaw for hours. There was a great sense of accomplishment in what we were doing. The ability to know you’re making a difference in assisting other crews gave me great satisfaction. Our crew had done a great job and I was excited to see our hard work paid off.
That’s all I got! Thanks for reading and sticking through my stories. So much has happened and I’m happy I can share it with all of you. Until next time, so long from La Biche.