B.C. forest ministry looking for new recruits with plenty of experience

B.C. forest ministry looking for new recruits with plenty of experience

4 August 2009

published by www.vancouversun.com

Canada — Jeremiah Louis is only five-foot-six, but he’s young, strong, fit and able to carry a 20-kilogram pack uphill 4.8 kilometres in under 45 minutes.

That’s the entrance requirement to get into training to become a firefighter with the B.C. Ministry of Forests. It’s the kind of fitness needed to fight blazes on rocky, inhospitable terrain like Terrace Mountain and Mount McLean, the sites of two of B.C.’s most intense fires in a season that has seen more than 100 wildfires ignite every day.

“I’m not a big hunky Goliath,” Louis says from Lillooet, where he’s training to be a fire information officer on his days off as a wildfire fighter for the forests ministry.

At five-foot-six, and 220 pounds, the 26-year-old said, “I average out like a box.”

Louis has been fighting fires for the past five years, but the last two — Glenrosa and Terrace Mountain — have had particular meaning for him.

Plumes from both could be seen from the windows of homes on the Okanagan reserve, where he grew up.

“There’s more than money and homes at stake, but it was also threatening the reserve. You can go out and save trees, but when you have to work hard to save an isolated community, it’s a different kind of stress.

“You work all day to reduce fire risk so people on evacuation can go back home.

“People were happy to see us leave [to go into the woods] and happy to see us at the end of the day [when they came back].”

Wildfire fighting is a dirty job, but attractive to very fit, strong outdoorsy young men and women.

It’s popular among university students with a strong work ethic whose schedules suit the seasonal work — fire season lasts from April to September — and who can handle 15-hour days carrying chainsaws, axes and water up mountains in smoke and sweltering heat.

Jim Carter equates wildfire fighters with elite endurance athletes.

“They’re good at monitoring how they feel, they’re used to their bodies,” said Carter, director of fitness, a research associate and firefighter instructor with the Justice Institute of B.C.

Where structural firefighters — those who work in communities or urban areas — may get a week of “down time” before an intense burst of activity and stress, the forest blaze fighter is a master of long, hard work and self-pacing.

Carter said wildfire fighters know their limitations: “They will be more likely to feel some of the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, than structural firefighters who engage in quicker, more intense work.”

The firefighters who run headlong into a burning forest wear coveralls made of Nomex, a light, breathable and fire-retardant fabric that helps dissipate sweat and heat, and allows for the flexibility needed to pull hoses, and carry axes uphill.

And more such people are needed: the forests ministry is looking for recruits.

For those interested, the ministry website says it’s helpful to have plenty of experience in climbing and rappelling, knowledge of a thing or two about geology and forestry, and the ability to work a chainsaw without losing an arm.

It’s also good to know how to fall without seriously wounding yourself and to be able to excuse yourself from your family and personal life for two weeks straight in wildfire season.

A normal shift lasts seven hours a day, or 35 hours per week. But in dry, hot seasons like this one, firefighters can find themselves working more than 14 days without a break.

The 22 firefighters and fire behaviour specialists from Australia and eight from New Zealand should be expecting that gruelling work schedule when they arrive Thursday to fight the wildfires in Brookmere, near Merritt, and Lillooet.

They’ll stay in B.C. for a little over 30 days, with 14 consecutive days of work, and three days off before continuing for another 14-day stretch. They’ll be joining the 24 Nova Scotia firefighters, and others from the U.S. and Ontario who’ve joined the ranks since Monday.

About 17 B.C. firefighters travelled to Australia in February, when the southern Victoria region of Australia suffered a devastating blaze that claimed more than 200 lives and destroyed more than 1,800 homes.

Exchanges like these are common, said BC Forest Service spokeswoman Radha Fisher.

“They come with a lot of experience, and there are lots of synergies in the practices and safety standards between us.”

But there are other challenges that go far beyond the physical, said Louis. One of those is dealing with the public.

Louis worked for 15 days straight on the Terrace Mountain fire, after helping to battle Kelowna’s Glenrosa fire for 15 days straight.

One of the frustrating things about battling that blaze was the public’s perception surrounding “burning off,” he said.

When they “burn off” or “backfire,” workers ignite unburnt fuel, starting a fire that eventually helps them get to the original fire.

“[For people in the Okanagan] to see crews going into fires with hand torches when they’ve just been evacuated is not easy, but it’s such a major part of fire control,” said Louis.

He unwinds at the end of the long days with the people who understand him best.

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