I know what you did last summer: the dirty secret behind wildland firefighting

With a slower wildfire season in B.C. this year, crews have been kept busy attending to the, sometimes, less glamorous tasks.

Wildland firefighter with BCWS don't just fight fires. In slow seasons you can find them clearing trails and getting rid of danger trees. Photo: contributed

By Erik Hanson, Forest Protection Technician for the Columbia Fire Zone.

After you grind your way through the rigorous application process and gruelling fitness tests and are hired as a firefighter with the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS), you quickly discover that you have two jobs: responding to wildfires and doing project work.

Wildfire response is the job that everybody knows about: we hit hard, hit fast and take decisive action to extinguish all unwanted wildfires. BCWS crews respond to lightning-caused and human-caused fires that range in size from a small, abandoned campfire to an inferno larger than Greater Vancouver. The Fort McMurray wildfire earlier this year, for example, covered over 600,000 hectares.

The fire response part of the job is about protecting life, property, environmental and cultural values, as well as preserving the natural resources that fuel B.C.’s economy. It’s a job that we’re proud to do and we’re often publicly thanked for taking on that challenge.

The work can be dangerous and it requires a great deal of skill, cultivated by countless hours of training and mentorship.

Here’s where your second job as a BCWS firefighter comes in. In order to develop the fireline skills that are essential to work safely and effectively, BCWS crews are also assigned a wide variety of project work. These activities add economic and societal value to the Columbia Fire Zone (which encompasses areas surrounding Revelstoke and Golden) and — in a relatively quiet fire season like this one — you quickly discover that this is your primary job.

BCWS crews hone their fireline skills while tackling general tasks. Photo: contributed

The work is not glamorous, it often goes unrecognized and it is definitely dirty. But it can also be very rewarding. Generally done within the confines of a standard work day, project work gives firefighters valuable opportunities to hone their fireline skills while tackling tasks ranging from danger tree falling in the rock climbing area at Begbie Bluffs to broadcast burning for BC Timber Sales near the Downie Loop.

Like a boxer constantly training for a big match, crews use their regularly scheduled work days to become better firefighters.

Sometimes the project work can be incredible. Earlier this month, a squad hiked Begbie Mountain from the highway to the glacier carrying a chainsaw, gasoline and supplies. They bucked trees off the path on the way up and were rewarded with a fantastic view at the top.

By contrast, on a separate occasion, crews have hiked to the base of the glacier to connect an overflowing outhouse to a helicopter long line. While the latrine was in transit, the crews were rewarded with a shower of human waste as the payload breeched the brim.

It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it.

When prioritizing project work, BCWS first considers which projects would best enhance a crew’s ability to respond to wildfires. Chainsaw proficiency, burning, water delivery and navigation are some of the fundamental skills that crews develop while doing project work.

The tasks are incredibly diverse, but may include the maintenance or repair of: recreation sites (replacing fire rings and picnic tables, falling danger trees and fixing snow-damaged structures); trail networks (creation or repair of mountain bike, dirt bike, ski or hiking trails); forest service roads (clearing sight lines, falling danger trees or bridge washing); and weather stations (establishing access, fixing snow damage or repairing equipment).

Project work often allows for maintenance or repair of recreation sites. Photo: contributed
Project work often allows for maintenance or repair of recreation sites. Photo: contributed

Project work often includes fuel management, as crews reduce hazardous accumulations of forest fuels near communities by trimming, piling and burning branches and ground fuel.

As a wildland firefighter with BCWS, you will always have two jobs. Although project work usually doesn’t have the high profile that wildfire response does, its work that BCWS staff are committed to doing. Our crews pride themselves on working hard and getting lots done. They appreciate that these jobs keep their skills sharp and also add value to the communities that they call home.

A slower fire season provides more time for crews to work on a wide variety of projects throughout the fire zone. It keeps wildfire crews smiling (and dirty) and always ready for the next fire response call.

Feature article from Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, BC Wildfire Service