Alberta Wildland Firefighter Adventures – “Golden Wildfire”

IMG_2421Occasionally a wildland firefighter works a wildfire that is unlike any other. Many wildfires are unforgettable for many different reasons to each firefighter, but there is always one that stands out among the rest. I call that the “Golden Wildfire.” Usually these wildfires are so big and powerful that they are nearly impossible to contain. Within this last month I was fortunate enough to experience my “Golden Wildfire.”

My “Golden Wildfire” day started out with loading the helicopter full of our wildfire and rappel equipment, followed by the daily safety briefing. It was a double dispatch day and we were on a five-minute getaway. Double dispatch is implemented on higher hazard days and any new wildfires get two initial attack crews and two groups of airtankers dispatched to it.

On five-minute getaway we have to be fully suited and flying towards the location within five minutes of getting dispatched. Within a few hours we heard “Whitecourt Rap 6” and “Whitecourt Hac 2” call in over our radios. A wildfire was discovered in the northwest corner of the Whitecourt area and this was our dispatch. We quickly collected ourselves, suited up, jumped in the helicopter and flew to the coordinates.

Five miles back from the location we could see a small white smoke column rising above the treetops and immediately started getting antsy. As we flew over the wildfire we could see it burning along a cut block in slash and starting to burn into the treetops. We landed near the wildfire following another crew led by Jenny Hill, then unloaded our gear and connected the bucket to our helicopter.

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Teaming up with my crewmate, Jordan Chenard, we were tasked to find a suitable pump site and to get the pump running. A couple of other firefighters were tasked with running hose from the pump site to the wildfire. Within 10 minutes we had the pump operational, the hose connected and water on its way to the wildfire.

Once the water was flowing, I hiked into the wildfire. As I rounded a stand of aspen trees about 200 feet from the pump, I witnessed the wildfire engulf a stand of spruce and pine trees then burst out into the slash cut block in search of more fuel to consume. The fire was running; and running fast.

The flames closed in on a deck of logs stacked on top of each other, ready for transportation and processing. Jenny’s crew was busy securing the south flank of the wildfire while my crew rushed to lay out hose on the east flank to wet down the log deck and knock down the 10-foot tall wall of flames. Airtankers had been requested but were delayed fighting other wildfires.

For brief moments the wildfire would lash out overwhelming. A tug-o-war match ensued between the wildfire and my crew; we would retreat due to the shear heat and intensity of the flames then advance on the wildfire when it was safe and there was a slight wind shift directing the flames away. Slowly we advanced.

By sundown we were successful in containing the wildfire. Just as the sun was starting to set, as it faded behind the treetops, my crew and I packed our fire gear into the helicopter and made our way back to fire base before legal down. Mid-flight, I leaned forward from my helicopter seat and glanced at my crew. They were all lying back in their seats with their eyes closed due to exhaustion. Their faces were covered in soot and they were all wearing a smile, I too sat back in my seat, closed my eyes, and smiled.

Until next time!
– Jamie

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