Firefighters in the Field – A Flap of Wildfires

It is an inevitable and recurring event that comes about infrequently. An event brought on by the development of natural weather occurrences in a solution of highly combustible wildfire probability. The end result culminates in a frenzy of helicopters, airtankers, ground personnel, and endless radio traffic in the age-old pugilism match of humans vs wildfires.

We refer to it as a ‘fire flap’; an abundance of wildfires in a short period of time. New wildfires, often from lightning, proceed to climb the available ladder fuel offered by the very vegetation they attempted to strike down. The flames climb the solitary tree and begin to find windward momentum, jumping from one tree to the next. In a dense and continuous forest with seemingly unlimited fuel, the wildfire becomes a gluttonous and incredible force of nature. For example, during one week in June we had over fifty starts within the span of seven days, which can always make for some challenging times.

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We landed on the first wildfire ready to assist where we can. The wildfire was just in its infancy; about a half hectare (or half of a football field). Flames were climbing trees and lighting them up like rows of candles. A couple of my team members skillfully navigated through the dense forest to a stream and began setting up our pump to lay hose. Me and another team member cut some hazardous trees threatening our helipad and began to clear a path for the hose to reach the wildfire. The helicopter returned with a barrage of 200 litre buckets of water whilst we employed our hose and pump system to move along the sides of the wildfire.

After hours of hot and laborious efforts using calculated firefighting tactics, we demobilized our gear, loaded the helicopter, and flew back to base in time for our helicopter to land safely in Fort McMurray with daylight to spare. We found out there was a power surge at camp which knocked our water heater out of commission. The showers were ice-cold and one couldn’t help but laugh at the deep, sharp breaths in the next bathroom of the person trying to endure the frigid shock of the water. We are happy that we had the privilege to do our jobs well today. And besides, a cold shower every now and then is healthy.

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By the fourth day your body is tired and your boots are still wet. Dry feet are a luxury that we are not always privileged to have in our profession. Your muscles are stiff and sore and your gear feels a little heavier as you load up your helicopter for the day. When the dispatch comes in you only hear the information being passed by the dispatcher over the radio and none of those other factors matter anymore. The information to help you complete your task is crucial to listen for. In those small amounts of time, you’re also navigating through the air, arriving at your next wildfire, and exiting into a swampy area up to your thighs in muskeg-soaked terrain. This time there are two helicopters and two crews looking to you for direction. Mix that with the impending tankers on the way asking to empty their 7,500 litres of payload according to your tactical plan, and things can get quite busy.

Calm, concise, and rational thinking are required in a moment’s notice. Tasks are handed out and everyone performs to the best of their ability. The airtankers spew a spectacular display of showering retardant and box the fire in ten spectacular overhead passes. The helicopters play whack-a-mole and catch each new tree that begins to torch-up. The ground crews drag hose while chopping brush and sawing trees around the perimeter. When the active flame dissipates, the wildfire is classified as ‘Being Held’, and by this aggressive nature of our initial attack we have accomplished our goal. Impending weather calls all crews on wildfires in the area to evacuate and return to base. By the time we land at base the enormous dark storm cell is moments from dropping its fury. Having done our jobs we seek shelter in the confines of our sleeper.

The tightness of the body starts to set in as you remove your cold and soaking wet clothes. The face in the mirror is black from soot and ash, and the showers are still ice-cold. However, despite all of those factors, you’re still feeling great. Accomplishing the tasks set out in front of you is why this work continues to reward you. It’s a feeling that’s hard to escape.

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Sitting in the dry comfort of my room now after having had a good workout and a warm shower, these experiences are what truly makes this line of work memorable.  Though challenging in those tumultuous times, the best moments in your life come when you face adversity, and the best character traits you develop will never be made when at rest inside your comfort zone. My rookie, Kyle, has since left and returned to school. Perhaps this was the best summer of his young life. Perhaps next summer will be better. In any case, I know that he is forever a changed man after the experiences we went through as a crew these past few months. The wildfire season is slowly coming to an end in Alberta as September is upon us. More of our colleagues will soon disappear during the winter months and we will all be left with the memories we made and the lessons we learned. Like a good book, you are left melancholy, wanting to experience it again as soon as that last page is turned.

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But there is still work to be done as British Colombia continues to battle wildfires. For now the remaining crews are in a state of readiness to answer that dispatch wherever it will lead us.  So, until that next dispatch…

Alex

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