Stressful season for forest fire command centre staff

Stressful season for forest fire command centre staff

16 June 2011

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Canada — It’s only midway through June and already shaping up to be one of the most challenging wildfire seasons in Alberta’s history.

“It’s been a busy year,” said Cory Davis, Provincial Duty Officer for Alberta’s provincial forest fire office. “Putting in long shifts, long hour days since about the middle of May.”

The Edmonton office acts as the nerve centre for provincial firefighting efforts. Davis and his colleagues manage and analyze information coming in from throughout the province, and distribute resources as necessary – a daunting task at the best of times

“Just having to allocate resources when you don’t have enough to go around are probably the hardest decisions,” Davis said.

Working to make those decisions easier are people lilke head Sustainable Resource Development meteorologist Nick Nimchuk, who agrees the 2011 wildfire season has been taxing.

“It’s a pretty stressful environment,” Nimchuk said. “Especially when there’s something like this happening.”

For more than 30 years Nimchuk has been observing weather patterns and crunching numbers in order to give crews the information they need to develop a plan of attack.

“You actually have to give numbers,” Nimchuk said. “Probabilities don’t work in this business or any business where you have to make a decision.”

But despite the best efforts of SRD staff, sometimes there’s little that can be done to prevent unthinkable disaster.

“Seeing the damage done to a town was unprecedented,” Nimchuk said of the devastation caused by the Slave Lake wildfires. “It took me a day or two to start thinking straight again and doing something about it.”

But with so much on their plates, especially this year, staff have little time to dwell on ‘what ifs.’ Instead, they take what lessons they can from the experience, adapt their attack, and work as hard as possible can to prevent the unthinkable from happening again.

“We are presently going to be engaged in doing a fire review,” said Operations Director Chris McGuinty. “If you don’t change, your a slave to history.”

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