A typical day for a forest firefighter includes early starts, constant boot and foot care and hydration. That’s according to one initial attack crew who spoke with the Star before embarking on three well-earned days off after working 14 straight.
Firefighters Greg Seidelin, Ali MacKellar, Doug Wiggill, and crew leader Billy Stevens have 25 years of experience between them.
Tamara Hynd photos
The work is challenging. They’ve been on one to two new fires every day and only when prodded do they concede they can feel it in their legs, which are tired from working on steep mountain slopes.
“Basically we’re mountain goats out there,” said Wiggill.
The four-person initial attack crew based out of the Selkirk office had returned to their base at Four Mile in their truck loaded with heaps of dirty hose that needed re-rolling, chainsaws that needed sharpening and cleaning, still wells that required refolding and overnight gear that needed to be replenished. They had just extinguished and demobilized spot fires above Ainsworth Hot Springs, Kokanee Creek, and Coffee Creek.
Born and raised in Nelson, Stevens says their days start at 6 a.m. when they’re on standby (if they’re not on a fire already) and they remain on-call until 10 p.m. so they have a clear eight-hour break before starting all over the next day.
The crew is set up to be self-sustainable for two nights on a fire if need be. Distance, fire behaviour, and the expense of helicopter transportation are all factors when deciding to overnight on a fire.
“There are no hotel shows, no campgrounds,” said Stevens, who has been fighting wildfires for 12 seasons, eight of them on the Columbia unit crew out of Revelstoke.
Crews stay in one-person tents or hammocks, although steep slopes often make it difficult to find a flat spot.
Firefighter Clay Mitchell took this photo of a fire during the 2014 season high above Duncan Lake, where local crews stayed overnight with hammocks suspended between the trees they were saving. The enlarged photo hangs in a locker room, capturing the beauty of being submersed deep in BC’s rugged wilderness as part of the job.
Fire food is anything quick that can be cooked with a Jet Boil stove, like chili and beans in a can. Lunch is often energy bars with nuts or trail mix. “There’s no time for anything more,” said Stevens. Breakfast is usually oatmeal and coffee.
And when they aren’t staying overnight, they go home to fend for themselves. Four firefighters were spotted grocery shopping right after the interview, clearly just off the fire line, covered in layers of soot and ash.
MacKellar said she and her roommate Naomi Fuglem, who is also on an initial attack crew, stocked their freezer at the beginning of the season with pasta, veggies, pepperoni, buns and ice cream, something MacKellar likes to have after a fire. And they will need to fill it again in preparation for August as the July supply is almost gone.
What does the crew like about the job?
“It’s exciting and hard,” said MacKellar, adding it’s perfect for people who like a challenge. Every day is different. “You never know what you’re going to get,” said Seidelin.
Seidelin and his colleagues like that the work is tangible and they can see the results of their labour.
“When the fire goes from raging and burning to cold and out,” says Seidelin.
“We did that,” MacKellar adds.
Ali MacKellar hauling lengths of hose on the fire line. This is her fourth season firefighting. Billy Stevens photo.
“It’s close to home,” said Wiggill, who was raised locally and was among the residents on evacuation alert for nine days before crews controlled the expanding fire above Six Mile.
Initial attack crews are 92 to 95 percent successful at extinguishing spot fires.
During the interview the crew doesn’t mention other common parts of their jobs: the digging, hauling hose, breathing in smoke, or building heli-pads.
For Stevens the biggest challenge this summer was during a deployment to the Yukon. The near 24-hour daylight made it difficult to fall asleep in a tent.
Greg Seidelin stands by the massive workbench he built from re-purposed bridge ties. This is Seidelin’s sixth fire season. Tamara Hynd photo
Each crew member brings a useful skill like carpentry, navigation, mechanics, inventory or paperwork. According to the bunch, “Doug can fix anything.”
Seidelin’s carpentry skills are apparent in the massive work bench that stands in the warehouse at their base, built from repurposed bridge ties at no expense to taxpayers. In their off time, which has been minimal thus far, the crew works on recreation and field management projects and fuel modification at Sitkum.
After a pilot project last year, the Southeast Fire Centre changed to four-person crews from three, partly because the terrain often requires helipad construction to access fires.
But the primary reason is safety. The crew explained that if one person is injured, they now have three people to take care of the injured — two to carry the person and one to attend. They all have at least Level 1 first aid training.
But having more people should help prevent accidents, they said, as sharing the load helps stave off fatigue. If someone has been running the chainsaw for some time, there are more people to spell off.
Stevens said they work in pairs which is also safer for potential animal encounters. But all four also say it’s better for crew dynamic.
“Socially, it’s so much better, less of the third-wheel feel,” Stevens said. “We’re with the same people for eight months. It’s important.”
Unique fire season
This crew, like many across BC, have been on a fire every day, sometimes two, over the last 14 days. Stevens figures the season is a month ahead of normal in terms of fire numbers and size. The crew has been on fires throughout the region.
And the creeks they normally use as water sources are already dry.
“Oh, we’ll find water,” said Stevens, matter of factly. “It’s just taking longer to get it.”
This has meant using helicopters more often to transport multiple 60-gallon (227 L) still wells or to fill 1,500 gallon (5,600 L) porta-tanks. The fires have been larger too. Rather than one or two trees burning, they are 0.1 to 0.3 of a hectare and it’s taking more time to put them out. The crew anticipates the fires will be larger still in August.
Coping with the elements
With temperatures soaring, hydration is a constant concern, especially while working on steep south-facing slopes.
Seidelin said he drinks six to eight litres of water a day “and it’s still not enough,” something the entire crew echoed.
They agree quality footwear and footcare — like wearing new socks every day and treating their boots — is a priority. MacKellar has a special tea tree oil spray she concocted to stave off foot problems that can fester while working in high-laced leather boots in 30 degree-plus temperatures for 12 hours day after day.
“I’ve spent more money on boots and socks than anything else,” said Stevens, who loves his new pair of custom-made boots, ordered after a marmot chewed the tops of his leather boots in search of salt last summer. The crew chuckled at the inconvenience of nest-building marmots and ground squirrels stealing their wool socks in the middle of the night and anything shiny like lighters.
Camp. Billy Stevens photo
The relationships between crew members are complex. They have each others back, remind each other to eat and drink and even feed one another.
“Amazing,” is what Stevens has to say about his colleagues. “They are the best crew I’ve ever had: solid, reliable, and very hard working.
“We know what each other is up to on a fire. No one’s slacking. Just get it done.”
To keep morale up on long drives they play chess in the truck and MacKellar sings. Seidelin has a reputation of being aware of crew members’ needs and providing solutions immediately.
While their absence from family and loved ones can cause stress and tension, Stevens said they understand the job comes first.
Morale is great and they appreciate support from family, friends and roommates, he said.
“True to Nelson, friends come by to take my dog [when I’m at work],” said Seidelin. “They’ve even taken him camping.”
While in Ainsworth, the crew received a positive reception.
“People coming up to us are so grateful,” said MacKellar. “That goes a long way.”
The crew has been so busy, they knew little of the fire coverage in the media and public outpourings of support. They had only heard there were fires in Kelowna.
“We don’t have time for any of that,” said Stevens, alluding to the long days in remote locations. They had no response when told Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Christy Clark were visiting fires in Kelowna that same afternoon.
“Our work is challenging, but it’s our job,” said Stevens.
Kootenay Lake zone manager Art Westerhaug said it’s been a busier start to the year.
“We’re definitely doing our best to keep up,” he said, adding everyone is working long hours, including support staff and dispatchers.
The Kootenay Lake zone (pictured left) ranges from the upper reaches of the Duncan River drainage south to the US border and runs from the Selkirk mountains in the west to the Purcell mountains in the east. The zone’s 10-year average is 107 fires per year. So far there have been 67 fires (six person caused, 61 lightning) with 1½ months left in the fire season, which runs into September.
There are almost 400 initial attack fire fighters across the province stationed at over 50 different bases.
There are 22 such crews in the Southeast Fire Centre, along with six unit crews of 20 firefighters each. The Southeast Fire Centre has four person initial attack crews.
According to bcwildfire.ca, there are 30 unit crews across the province.
There are a total of 1,029 type 1 firefighters in the province, and the ministry has access to more than 1,000 contract firefighting staff.
The province has spent over $160 million fighting fires so far this year.