Firefighters in the Field: Shipping Out to Ontario

In my last blog I touched on a lot of the reasons why I have the best job in the world, and although that is definitely still true, there are some tough days out on the fireline as well. I’m finally feeling rejuvenated after what felt like a very long, albeit awesome shift.

My crew started the shift with a low wildfire danger rating; this means that we had rainy conditions where the likelihood of a new wildfire starting or spreading was pretty slim. After a busy couple of months, we appreciated the time to do some much needed gear maintenance: drying the wet hose, sharpening and cleaning all of our equipment, and getting to know our pump a little better. This slower pace only lasted a few days, and we were promptly sent to a large under control wildfire in the Athabasca river valley.

We felt excited to be there, as most of our wildfires until this point were small initial attack wildfires that were all under two hectares in size. This would be our biggest wildfire to date at 5,400 hectares. Our Strike Team Leader (the supervisor in charge of our section of the wildfire) tasked us with finding and extinguishing hotspots. We would receive GPS coordinates every morning that had been identified by a helicopter or by the infrared scanning system that distinguishes hot spots in the early morning. We would then begin our very arduous journey of hiking ourselves, and our not-so-ergonomic gear (chainsaw, wajax bags (backpacks filled with water, accompanied by a hand pump), pulaskis, shovels, and a bag filled with drinking water for the crew), to find hotspots or “chicos”. Chicos are when the wildfire has burnt out a tree. If we encounter this, the tree needs to be cut down (if it’s safe to do so) and the fire within it needs to be extinguished. Here is a cool photo of what the inside of a burnt tree looks like after being cut with a chainsaw:

emma burning log

After that was done, we would then move onto the next spot. Although a one-kilometre hike may seem easy enough, it was made more difficult by the conditions of the wildfire. There was a ton of deadfall (dead trees), making the trip through the bush incredibly challenging. Those obstacles, mixed with the thirty-degree heat, the intense humidity, and the steep terrain meant we were feeling pretty tired when our helicopter came to pick us up after a 12-hour day. I give a lot of credit to our Firetack and Unit crews, who do this work so frequently! To be able to consistently trudge through terrain like that is impressive!

Though there were some tough days out on the fireline, the view of the Athabasca River from our lunch spot made it all worth it. This is my crew taking in the sheer power and beauty of the mighty Athabasca:

emma walking downhill

In the middle of our shift we were pulled off this wildfire because of the rapidly mounting hazard in Lac La Biche. We would be back on man-up for the remainder of the shift. It couldn’t possibly be more grueling than scrambling up steep river valley terrain in the scorching heat, could it?

That day, Lac La Biche had 21 new wildfires. My crew was on six different wildfires in two days. We worked hard to extinguish them and though the hours were long and the conditions on these wildfires were wet and rainy, we had a blast doing the job we love so much! My crew was diligent, constantly checking in with each other to maintain situational awareness and monitor fatigue on those busy days. After this crazy shift, we were pretty thrilled to get six days off. I’m glad the crew is feeling rejuvenated because we have another long shift ahead of us. Turns out we’re headed to Ontario to help out with the wildfire situation there. It feels great to return the favor after our Ontario friends helped us out in May. Anyway, time to run—I’ve got some packing to do! Look out for my next blog, where I’m sure I’ll have stories to share about my time in Ontario.

Side note:

Doesn’t this picture look like we should be in a Jurassic Park movie??

emma jurassic park

Until next time!


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