Summer approaches, and with it thoughts of sun, beaches, and... wildfires? Yes, as the years roll on, it seems we’re increasingly barraged with news items about forest fires nationwide. Footage of skeletal, blackened tress, raging infernos and dark plumes of smoke are common, accompanied by scenes of valiant crews combating the blazes.
Forget the familiar sound of fire sirens or mental images of hose teams dousing blazes. Wildfire-fighting is another ballgame. Depending on the location and severity of the threat, a typical response might include air tankers dropping fire-retardant material, helicopter rappel or parachute teams, ground crews or a mix of all of the above. Ground units range from three person Initial Attack Crews to Unit Crews of twenty for larger fires.
“Generally, we respond to most fires, and minimize costs by keeping the size below four hectares in order to maintain a 92-94 percent success rate,” says Ralph Mohrmann, Superintendent of Staff Development and Safety for the British Columbia Forest Service’s Wildfire Management Branch. Risk assessment of blazes is crucial, and prioritizing a must. Michelle Wigmore is a Wildfire Fighting Specialist and trainer at the Hinton Training Centre in Alberta. She spends her days drilling the principles of fire assessment into her students. “Initial Attack Crew leaders conduct a fire assessment,” she says. “[These include:] fire size, location, fuel type, rate of speed, values threatened and resources needed to effectively fight the fire.”
Safety of the respondents is always the first priority. Stress comes in the form of other, less obvious factors. Mike Allan, a Unit Crew Supervisor in Burns Lake, BC, puts it in perspective. “There’s little stress to the job until you’re in a position to make decisions that may affect people’s lives,” he says. “For the average fire fighter, it’s just a matter of being aware of your surroundings and the situation you’re in. There’s danger, but crews aren’t put in harm’s way.”
Wildfire-fighting isn’t for everyone. While that may be obvious, Wigmore has seen more than a few recruits that misjudge the job or — perhaps worse — themselves. “Every year people show up that aren’t comfortable working in the bush or with other people. Some don’t like hard labour,” she reveals. “These people should not apply.” The strategic locations of most fire response stations — read: in the woods — can also take a toll, she continues. “[There’s] long hours, being incredibly dirty and fatigued, waiting for days with no fires and sometimes getting called back early from days off.” It’s all a part of the job. “It’s an environment that changes quickly,” agrees Mohrmann. “Since crews must respond quickly, it can be difficult to plan for personal activities.”
A career in wildfire-fighting is seasonal and full-time work is hard to come by. Just as with training practices and pre-requisites, there’s a great deal of variation from province to province when it comes to hiring practices. “Without a diploma or degree in Forestry, full-time work in Alberta is not an option,” says Wigmore, though she adds, “as a seasonal worker, you can move from a crew member position to sub-leader or a leader.” While the titles might be a little different, the career path is similar in BC, according to Allan. “Those who get the job in their blood will continue on and, in three years or so, apply for crew leader positions, or look for a more administrative position.”
Competition for these jobs is fierce, and so following the correct application procedure is important. In addition to being in top physical shape, make sure all of your ducks are in a row before starting the application process in October for the next year’s season. While they accept applicants from anywhere, in BC “there is a preference for BC applicants,” says Mohrmann, adding that if first aid certification isn’t currently held, “candidates must clearly state in their application how and when they will obtain them.” Out of province applicants will need to check their first aid certification against the information on WorkSafeBC.com. It might seem like a lot of foot-work but the pay-off is inherent in the job. “Ask anyone that’s done this work and 95 percent will say it was or still is the best experience they’ve had,” says Allan. “It becomes a lifestyle — there’s no job like it. If you stay on you’ll sacrifice a regular life, and if you leave you’ll always be reminded of what you left. It’s a curse."jp