When the smoke clears: Aussie firefighters get some much-needed R&R in Whistler 

Over 100 Australian firefighters arrived in Canada last month to assist in battling hundreds of wildfires around the country

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVID BUZZARD / WWW.MEDIA-CENTRE.CA - CLEARING THE AIR A group of Australian firefighters relax in Whistler on a rare day off from battling nearby wildfires.
  • Photo by David Buzzard / www.media-centre.ca
  • CLEARING THE AIR A group of Australian firefighters relax in Whistler on a rare day off from battling nearby wildfires.

And you thought you had a rough week at work.

For the firefighters working around the clock to contain the hundreds of blazes burning across B.C. and Alberta this summer, the days are understandably long and arduous, often spent in remote forested areas in near unimaginable heat.

Those grueling conditions mean the rare time spent away from the fire line is as precious as it is necessary — necessary to rest up and recharge both mind and body before heading out on yet another two-week tour.

Fortunately there are people like Whistler helicopter pilot Stu Wild, who hosted a crew of Australian firefighters on their days off after they were brought in by the BC Government last month to lend a hand to their Canadian counterparts.

Pique caught up with one of the firefighthers from Down Under, Incident Commander Alistair Drayton, as he gets in some much-needed R&R before heading back out on his second tour of operation in the B.C. backcountry.

Pique: What have you and the other Aussie firefighters been doing since arriving in Canada last month?

AD: There are 104 Australians who came across on July 13, and we’ve been dispersed into Alberta and B.C. in a variety of places. About half of the contingency has already gone home because they received about 50 milimetres of rain in Alberta, but they’ve kept us here in B.C.

So we’re doing what we call ‘resetting’ at the moment, which is rest and relaxation. We’ve done one tour of duty, as they call it, and my team is a mixture of the Boulder complex fire and the Cougar Creek fire (crews).

Pique: What are your roles and responsibilities in battling those two fires?

AD: Primarily we’ve come across as an incident management team, which manages the fire … I’m in charge of the fire and then I have operations, logistics, planning and aircraft specialists. We literally take over the entire management of the fire and the BC Government gave us the fire to look after in its entirety.

The beauty of the two countries now is that we run the same management framework, which allows us to come into Canada and help, and vice versa.

Some of the (Canadian) unit crews, for example, the guys on the fire ground, the firefighters, they’re on their fourth or fifth rotation, which is 14 days each, so we need our folks to come out and give your management people a chop out. That’s what we can do for you.

Pique: Walk me through what a typical day is like on the fire line?

AD: We rise between 5:30 and 6 a.m., get some breakfast, and then we have what we call ‘wheels rolling’ at 7 a.m., so (our vehicles) are literally on the road. Some of the fires take up to an hour, an hour and a half to get to. At the Cougar Creek fire, for example, we’ve been flying them in because there’s far greater efficiency instead of being on the road for three hours.

They’d probably come back (from the fire grounds) between 6 and 7 p.m. at night, have something to eat, and then we have what’s called an ops briefing at 8:30 until 9 p.m., and then they knock off. So they’re long days in some tough conditions.

Pique: How crucial is having these couple days off for your team?

AD: It’s primarily about managing fatigue. That’s what’s very important — the utmost. We’ve been very fortunate to be here in Whistler, which is an absolute added bonus, without a doubt. We need to ensure we do get the appropriate amount of rest and recreation because we’re trying to reset the body clock so we can go back out and do 14-hour days again.

Pique: What have you been up to in Whistler on your time off?

AD: We’ve done everything: we’ve done the zipline, we went up the gondola, we went horse riding today. We’ve actually gone in all different directions and done as much as we can. I had one comment at breakfast this morning from someone saying we need to go back to work to rest because we’ve been so busy here. People have been taking advantage of Whistler, it’s just tremendous and there’s so much to do. It’s been absolutely fantastic.

Pique: I hear you’ve also spent some time on a ‘party barge?'

AD: Stu’s been a great host. We would personally like to thank Stu. He’s gone out of his way to host us and provide us with an exceptional day of R & R.

We really enjoyed ourselves for the whole day — I think we were on the barge for about eight hours in fact.

Pique: What’s the level of camaraderie like between firefighters from around the world?

AD: We often say fighting fires is the same world-round … and between countries as well. If any country is in need, other countries should come to assist, and that’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’re doing. Likewise, we know there’s a benefit to being in different hemispheres; it’s winter back home right now, so all of our incident management-type personnel are available, so we’re able to come and assist and it’s not difficult at all. And the program's starting to get better and better, and they’re working on making it easier and easier for ourselves to manage that and to make it work without any hurdles.

Pique: What’s the support been like from the Canadian public so far?

AD: It’s been overwhelming. It’s been actually incredible. (The public has had) nothing but open hearts and open minds for us. Nothing’s been a challenge for us and we’ve been made to feel very, very welcome.

I want to thank the people of Whistler. I know there are a lot of Australians already here, but the mixture of being Australian and a firefighter is something else. It’s put us on a whole new level and the respect is tremendous, it really is. We appreciate it. It makes it easy to come here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Check back with Pique on Thursday for more on this story.

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