This fire season has been extremely busy across the province for Alberta wildland firefighters, but what do we do when there is little to no fire activity in Alberta?
If there is limited fire activity in Alberta we can be exported to provinces and countries experiencing significant fire activity. Likewise they share firefighters with Alberta when needed, which we witnessed earlier this season. Within the past month, the wildfire hazard and fire activity across Alberta has decreased allowing the province to send wildland firefighters to Northwest Territories and the United States assisting in both Idaho and Montana. I have never been on an export out of the province but for the lucky few it is an unforgettable experience.
The wildland firefighters remaining in Alberta await new wildfire starts or continue to work on all of the outstanding wildfires currently presenting little to no threat. We just returned from one tour in High Level and a second in Fort McMurray where we helped suppress more than six large wildfires. My crew and I rappelled in and cut numerous helipads for other crews to action nearby hotspots. It can take weeks to months to put out a wildfire from the day it starts. While you may see little fire activity in the media or on the Wildfire Alberta App, there are still firefighters hiking, rappelling or hover exiting into remote locations in search of hot spots on wildfires across province.
This job does not always revolve around fighting wildfires, which adds to the long list of reasons of why I love my job. When we’re not on the fireline, at home or abroad, we usually work on any of these three things: Provincial Assistance, Provincial/Area Projects and Training.
Unfortunately natural disasters occasionally strike Alberta such as the floods of 2013 and the flash snow fall Calgary experienced in 2014. In these instances, firefighting crews are allocated to assist with disaster relief. I was sent down to the High River flood in 2013 to provide assistance. My crew and I assisted by helping with animal rescue and relocation and the recovery of the High River waste treatment facility.
A big project the province is involved in is the FireSmart program. Crews work on thinning forests, removing ladder fuels and dead fuels surrounding forested communities in Alberta. Ladder fuels are small and medium fuels such as tree branches, bushes, deadfall and small trees in the understory of forests. Most spruce trees have dead branches on the lower portion of the tree. Immature pine trees also have ladder fuels on the lower portion of the tree, while mature pine trees are self-pruning and do not usually have ladder fuels. When ladder fuels are removed it can prevent ground fires from climbing into the tops, or crowns, of trees. Once a fire hits the crowns, it can spread much quicker. Other projects include repairs and maintenance of grounds, provincial parks and fire camps in Alberta.
Training is one of the most important things we as wildland firefighters do. It allows us to do our jobs safely and effectively. Crews train in many different ways so I will touch on both firefighting and rappel relevant training. All wildland firefighters work on many different training exercises throughout the year such as: pump proficiency and hose laying, GPS, compass and mapping, outdoor survival, strategy and tactics, advanced wildfire behaviour, team bonding/camaraderie, mock fire scenarios, wildfire knowledge tests, first aid, search and rescue, and equipment testing to name a few. Rappel specific training involves rappelling, cargo extractions, cargo deployments, emergency retrievals, mock-ups and towers, and emergencies while rappelling.
This season my crew and I executed a first aid exercise where a “mock” tree had fallen on a member pinning him to the ground and knocking him unconscious. Not knowing the extent of his “mock” injuries, we safely extracted the individual from a remote location using a handcrafted stretcher. The crew and I then extracted the individual to a helipad for further air extraction.