As many as you know, this wildfire season has been very, very busy. There have been more than 1,300 wildfires in Alberta alone since April 1, but firefighters have put out over 1,200 of them. Everyone across the province has been working extremely hard – from the wildfire crews and aircraft working in the field to the many people behind the scenes: radio operators, warehouse staff, logistics and the lookout towers, just to name a few. It couldn’t be done without everyone’s dedicated efforts! I’m very proud to be a part of the Alberta Wildfire Management Team and the amount of work we have accomplished to date.
Jamie and Troy must notice a difference this season on the initial attack side of things. With the amount of new wildfires starting across the province, they are getting sent all over Alberta. This is one of the hottest and most severe fire seasons Alberta has experienced in a long time. More than 425,000 hectares have burned this year. The five year average for this time of year is less than half that number at 203,000 hectares. A few of my friends that are scattered throughout Alberta’s Forest Protection Area have said how busy it is for them working long shifts in their own areas, using more airtankers to fight wildfires and seeing more intense fire behaviour with this dry weather.
I started fighting wildfires four years ago in the Fort McMurray area where I had the privilege of learning from experienced wildland firefighters thanks to the high number of wildfires that happen in the north.
I decided last season to transfer to the Edson Unit Crew to be closer to my home in Canmore and to try my hand with a unit crew. Fighting wildfire as a part of an instant twenty pack sounded pretty awesome compared to a four person initial attack crew (still awesome, just different). It’s a diverse experience. When it’s busy like it is this season you know at the beginning of every shift you’re going to be sent to a wildfire and you will be working hard day in, day out for the next 15 days.
It is incredible seeing the progress we can accomplish in just 15 days! You definitely have to be tough to survive in wildfires. There isn’t any easy way out when you have to carry hose bags up steep hills or shuffle gear over many kilometers of rough terrain and then do it again three or four more times. You start out in the morning with a goal and you go for it and deal with the unexpected things as they come, like blown hose lengths or running low on fuel for the pump and the third jerry is at the helicopter pad which is 1.5 km hike back and you need to get that fuel because then the pump will die and you never want the pump to stop.
You learn little tricks like stuffing your pockets with as much food as possible up the line because you never know when you will be back at your bag. It’s important to always keep your personal fuel tank high because if you don’t take care of yourself you’re no good to your crew. Then there are the times when you have cross over conditions, where the humidity levels in the air are lower than the actual temperature, which makes for more intense wildfire behaviour. The wildfires we’re fighting seem to want to take off in these conditions, but our crews manage to supress the wildfire activity and keep it down. Those are the best moments, high fives all around! The whole crew dialed in and working together. Those times makes the bugs, wet feet and squished sandwiches all worth it.
I have really enjoyed my time so far with the Edson Unit Crew. A determined crew to say the least, surrounded by high energy people who love what they do! And it is just not our crew with this enthusiasm. Everyone I meet is so excited to be working on that fire or the dispatch to the smoke detection.
Our leader, Michelle, has been fighting wildfires for close to 20 years. Michelle oversees operations for the whole crew while making strategic plans for each sub crew. There aren’t a lot of women in this line of work, but the ones that are really set the bar high. Women like Michelle with her “go for it” attitude and hard work ethic really makes me want to be a part of the crew. It is definitely a key attribute to have in this career – you really got to love what you do.
My crew mate Zach has put together a video of the wildfires we have been battling this season so far, check it out!
Until next time – I will be working the fireline!