feature 421 

Attack of the seasonal fire-crews 96 per cent of their work goes unnoticed, but that doesn’t mean the adrenaline isn’t flowing on a regular basis By Oona Woods All winter long Aaron Clements is concerned about snow conditions and avalanches. As a ski patroller he spends his time in, on and around the white stuff. Now that summer’s here he can kick back, relax and languidly spend his time rappelling out of helicopters right into the numerous wildfires B.C. has every year. In true Whistler fashion, the change of season means a change of employment for a great many of the outdoorsy, backcountry types. The terrain in the Sea to Sky Corridor makes for some interesting professions. You can earn a living with skis, snowmobiles, snowshoes and sense all winter long but what do you turn to in the summer? If you’ve been living off the land for half the year it is almost impossible to force yourself indoors for a temporary office job. When pushing the envelope is the nearest you get to paperwork what kind of summer job can provide the same amount of adrenaline? Probably not a tourist booth. When you have all these trees, all this dry, hot weather and the odd lightning strike or careless camper, you’re going to have a whole bunch of fires. Luckily we also have a whole bunch of daring backcountry experts with enough skill and cutting-edge equipment to put those fires out. There are 17 fire attack bases in B.C. Each one has a staff of fire crews. Pemberton has 55 people located on its base. There are two groups of native fire crews, from D’Arcy and Mount Currie, with about 20 trained firemen on each. The Initial Attack (IA) Crews are also based on-site. These are the first people to respond to a bush fire. "Respond to a bush fire" means they drag on pounds of equipment and dangle off a rope from hundreds of feet up in order to get nearer to a big, burning zone of smoke and flames. In most cases access can only be gained by helicopter as the locations are remote and often on the sides of mountains. Fire guys say that local helicopter pilots are the most highly trained mountain flyers around. Pemberton’s IA crews are largely made up of guys who work in Whistler all winter then head up Highway 99 to the base of Mount Currie for the summer. The lads have an outstanding reputation nation wide for being efficient and highly trained, as well as being first in line for dinner. They have attended fires in Quebec and Ontario consistently over the last four years. Attack crew guy Bones is a relative newcomer to the area. He says the job had all the components he needed to stay. "I relocated from North Van where I got stuck this winter. I’m a musician and a ski-tech and there’s lots of both of those going on here. There’s a big correlation between wildfire fighting and the ski-business. You get all those hard-core professional ski-types." Fire Protection Assistant officer Andy Goss has a theory as to why this happens. "It’s a fraternity. For this group it seems to be. I guess it’s just the lifestyle. We tour around, we’re outdoor enthusiasts, we’re by Mount Currie. If you put us in an office we’d go nuts." A nutty ski-patroller stuck in an office would not be a pretty picture. Bones also has a theory. "We get to do all that pseudo-military macho stuff but we don’t have to take it seriously like the guys who shoot people do... The people here are great, too. I have a serious problem with authority; here I respect the people I work for. They’re not fool, idiots and people who want to kill you." Instead of being office-bound boys they are outbound all over the country. There is even a mutual aid agreement between the United States and Canada when it comes to fighting forest fires. "Our equipment and training is so advanced that people come from all over the world to learn how we do it," says Bones. "There were guys here last year from Ghana, Chile, Malaysia and all over the place. We have really advanced systems." Fire Protection Officer Mark Fletcher is also the Air Attack Officer for the air tankers which drop fire retardents. The systems set up to keep track of the airplanes and fires use computer icons and satellite tracking. The system is so advanced that it is gathering world-wide attention and could even generate revenue for the department. The down side is it’s so advanced that one off-duty fire crew was tracked by satellite to a strip bar in Kamloops. All of the crew members insist that their extensive training, practicums, drills and constant safety awareness programs reduce the risk considerably. Before any Attack Crews go out they are so well versed in the process of rappelling out of helicopters that it becomes second nature. "Our training is such that the anticipation and jitters are there but auto-pilot kicks in to put the fire out as efficiently as possible," says Fletcher. "The Initial Attack Crew’s mandate is to put the fire out or have it under control by the start of the next burning period at 10 a.m. the next day." However, all of this doesn’t take away from the sheer buzz of adrenaline that comes with heading out to the fire line. Clements’ first fire was back in Northern Ontario seven years ago. "It was early May and we were just hanging around the base when I heard a big thunder clap," says Clements. "It was 10 miles away and we went to check it out. There was a strike indicated on the lightning map so we loaded the patrol." The helicopter toured the area with the crew looking for the fire. Clements spotted it but figured the more experienced guys on the crew knew what they were doing. "I was brand new. I was intently looking out the window I wanted it so bad. We flew right over it and none of them said anything. I had my face all squashed against the window watching it get smaller. I thought they would see it for sure. I watched it go underneath but I didn’t want to rock the boat." When he couldn’t stand it anymore he told them it was behind them and eventually managed to convince them to turn around. The crew headed into the fire. "You should have seen me," he laughs. "I was this great big awkward gangly-legged city guy. They gave me a 400-foot hose pipe to run into the forest and then another one for good measure. I ran two steps and fell upside-down like a turtle. I had to be helped up. After that I calmed down. I was so excited, so psyched." The adrenaline rush gets the fire crew all misty eyed whenever they describe it. "It gets into your blood," says Bones. "You just want to do that. When the crew is on red alert there is static in the air, then you get that call. It’s a rush — big time." "Our philosophy is ‘Hit hard hit fast,’" says Fletcher, who has been fighting fires for 20 years, including working as a smoke-jumper in the Yukon for 15 years. He has been burned twice by fire rolling over the crew. "You cover yourself in water, bandannas and goggles and just dig in and ride it out. There are inherent risks, a lot of specialty flying, bucking, falling. And you’re working with fire, an unstable commodity, plus steep terrain, long hours and not the greatest of food. But it is positive. You’re outside in the bush, dealing with the fire. Trying to win over the entity, gain control and extinguish. It is mental work, too. Strategies and tactics. It is infinite. Every fire has its own set of fingerprints. Then there is the camaraderie and the team environment and that kind of idea. ‘We’re going out and kicking ash’. There’s lots of adrenaline. Helicopters, bucketing, air tankers, burning. It’s awesome. Just happening now. It’s mentally and physically challenging and very rewarding." In true hero fashion most of their best work goes unnoticed by the general public. These hard core types are so good at what they do that 96 per cent of all the wildfires that start in the bush are put out by the IA crews before they get big enough to make the news. "People might just see the helicopters go by," says Clements. "There’s not often a huge column of smoke looming over the hill like there was at the dump (south of Whistler) two years ago." In the case of that fire the attack crews were trying to get it under control before a north wind blew the fire towards Whistler. "Fire likes to go uphill — extremely fast." says Clements. "Whistler is uphill from just about anywhere. We are concerned with people first, then property, then timber in that order." The fire crews from Pemberton will be spending a portion of their summer season co-operating with the Whistler Fire Department in educating Whistler about the ways of bush fires. This public outreach program will be going door to door helping people fire-proof their places, if they want to join in. Fletcher says it is crucial to make people in Whistler aware of the danger of wildfire. "It’s not a matter of if there will be a fire in Whistler, it’s a matter of when," says Fletcher. "It’s a prime example, probably the worst in the province. People build in the trees and forest. What they’ve done is built forest fire fuel. All you need is a summer drought and a 30 kilometre outflow wind. Outflow winds come from the hot, dry Interior. Inflows are moist ocean winds. Outflows howl harder and faster than inflows. All it takes is one innocent mistake, a match or cigarette north of town and in the worst case scenario we’d have a wildfire in the sub-division with wind. I’m not being doomsday." In Penticton in 1991, 21 houses were lost to bush fire. Whistler doesn’t have the same type of fuel regimens as Penticton, but "It still gets dry," says Fletcher. "It will happen." If you see a fire or smoke do not hesitate to report it to the fire reporting centre in Kamloops at 1-800-663-5555. "People should never assume that it had already been reported. It doesn’t hurt to call them in. One guy saw a fire from an airplane coming over from Campbell River. People looking at it assumed it had already been reported. It hadn’t."

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