Canada — A helicopter hovers several hundred feet from where a forest fire burns. Hurrying to the cabin door, Rob Phillips looks down, and jumps.
Phillips is one of about 60 helitack rappel wildland firefighters employed by the province of Alberta every summer. In total, 600 men and women are preparing for the wildfire season at the Hinton Training Centre, where they learn how to pump water from creeks, chop down trees, read animal behaviour and rappel from the sky.
Phillips and his crewmates, all returnees to Hinton, are doing practice jumps along the banks of the Athabasca River. The fires are imaginary, but their efforts are real.
Alberta’s wildfire crews are gearing up for a dry summer that follows years of drought conditions and extremely low levels of precipitation this spring.
“Unless we get more spring rains, it will be a busy season,” says instructor Kevin A. Hakes. “This little bit of rain that we had just the other day is going to help, but it’s not going to be enough.”
Already, 307 fires have been recorded in Alberta’s forest protection area this year, more than double the five-year average of 122 by this date.
The parched grass is like straw and crunches loudly underfoot. This is the Phillips’ fifth season as a wildland firefighter. Like his fellow recruits, the 26-year-old leads a very different lifestyle during the off-season. The Calgarian is a recent graduate of Mount Royal University’s business administration program; other firefighters are accountants, mailmen, movie set grips and post-secondary students.
Battling wildfires is significantly more dangerous than your typical nine-to-five, but the men and women who sign up for the job say they love it. The pay is decent — helitack rappel members make between $19 and $23 an hour — and the job is fun for those who love the outdoors, the mental and physical challenges of firefighting, and the unknown.
“I’ve been doing it since I was 16 years old and I just love it. Best job ever,” says 27-year-old Alan Huber, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Redwater. “I’ve tried other jobs and I always keep coming back to fire.”
Helitack rappel recruits arrive at the Hinton Training Centre in April for about four weeks of gruelling training. The centre, run by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Mornings here begin at 6 a.m. with a 10-kilometre run. Some days stretch until 8 p.m., ending finally with a two-hour theory session in the classroom. From a pool of 200 to 300 applicants, about 20 new recruits are selected to enter the program. As many as half will eventually be cut before crews are deployed in May. Returnees fill the remaining positions.
“It’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle,” says Phillips. “Every year, you say you’re not going to come back because it’s a seasonal job, and then as it gets closer and closer to April you basically come back.
“And when you come back, it’s awesome; it’s like summer camp.”
Before performing live rappels from helicopters, recruits practice scaling down a 17-metre tower while instructors throw emergency scenarios at them to test their responses to everything from helicopter engine failures and bear encounters to tangled ropes.
“Usually we try to avoid getting into dangerous situations, but sometimes things do go sideways,” says command spotter Greg Adams.
Rappel crews are sent to fight fires difficult to reach by foot. Once on the ground, there’s no turning back. Members rush to the closest creek, river, pond or lake to set up a pump, then drag hundreds of metres of hose back to the blaze. This year, finding water sources will be more challenging than usual.
“We’ve all noticed that water levels are dropping,” says Huber. “It might not be as easy to find water. Some little creek beds are drying up.”
Firefighters are also trained to use chainsaws to clear makeshift helipads for times when burns rage out of control and crews have to bail from deep in the woods.
“There’s a bit of adrenalin, for sure,” says Phillips. Having put some 200 rappels under his belt, he has learned to ignore the noise, the heat and the smoke.
“You’re really thinking about the training, because you’ve done a lot of pushups to get to that point,” he says. “It’s not like when you step out of the helicopter, you’re thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m going to go out of a perfectly good helicopter.’ It’s just like in the tower, but a little bit higher.”