British ColumbiaProfile

Meet the 30-year-old who steered B.C. through the worst wildfire season on record

'I don't think any of us have had a chance to consider the sheer magnitude of what happened out there'

Michelle Ghoussoub - CBC News

October 02, 2017

Kevin Skrepnek is the chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

To say that Kevin Skrepnek had a busy summer would be an understatement.

As the chief fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service during the province's worst wildfire season on record, he spent most of the past few months working 16-hour shifts.

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Between ensuring that government ministries and the public had the latest intelligence on dozens of wildfires, fielding calls from journalists and travelling into fire zones to provide first hand support, Skrepnek also became a dad.

You'd think that Skrepnek, a cheerful 30-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to actor Seth Rogan, would be getting some rest.

But as the summer turns to fall, Skrepnek has debriefs to complete and data to crunch — after all, the next wildfire season is right around the corner. 

But first, back to the day it all began.

An operational briefing for crews fighting fires around Williams Lake. (Kevin Skrepnek)

'A day a lot of us won't forget'

July 7, 2017 is a date that many B.C. residents won't forget anytime soon.

A hot, dry Friday that Skrepnek said started as "business is usual" soon turned into a nightmare.

Over the course of one afternoon, over a hundred wildfires broke out across the province. By the end of the day, B.C. was in a provincial state of emergency.

For Skrepnek, watching from his perch in the Kamloops Fire Centre, it quickly became clear that the situation was spiralling out of control.

"I definitely shed a few tears that day."

Hopeful notes on the whiteboard at the Cariboo Fire Centre, one day after the city was evacuated. (Kevin Skrepnek)

'The first time I saw B.C. it was on fire'

Skrepnek grew up in Ontario, and first visited B.C. in 2003.

"My first time seeing B.C., when my plane came over the Rockies, the pilot directed us to look out the window and there was a huge forest fire going," he said.

'The fires themselves can be extremely destructive — but they can be kind of breathtaking in their own way as well'

"It was kind of fitting, the first time I saw British Columbia it was on fire."

Skrepnek eventually moved to B.C. to study public relations at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

His first summer off from school, he got a seasonal position with the Wildfire Service.

Skrepnek's accommodations at Cariboo Fire Centre in Williams Lake as the city was evacuated, taken in the early hours of July 16. (Kevin Skrepnek)

'The only vehicle driving north'

In a summer defined by sweat, tears, and nail-bitting close calls, a few moments stand out. For Skrepnek, the massive evacuation of the city of Williams Lake is one of them.

That's because as he headed into the city under the cover of darkness, the massive wildfire he was driving towards wasn't the only thing on his mind.

"I was glad I was there to help, but I was also expecting my daughter to be born kind of within the week."

'I was glad I was there to help — but I was also expecting my daughter to be born kind of within the week' 

Skrepnek left Williams Lake on July 20 and headed to Chilliwack, where the first contingent of Australian personnel was arriving to provide relief. 

He then held a quick press conference, and rushed back to Kamloops for the baby's delivery. 

"For someone in my industry it was about the least ideal time possible."

Skrepnek took three days off to spend time with his partner and newborn daughter, who they named Sage. Then he headed back to work.

Baby Sage, born in Kamloops at the height of B.C.'s worst wildfire season. (Kevin Skrepnek)

The calm after the storm

As the season unwinds, Skrepnek said he's aware of the mental toll the fires have taken on him and his staff.

"When I look back at the summer and the amount of stress that was on us, I don't think any of us have had a chance to look back and consider the sheer magnitude of what happened out there."

Mexican and B.C. personnel participating in a Mexican Independence Day ceremony at the Elephant Hill fire camp near 100 Mile House on Sept. 15. (Kevin Skrepnek)

At the peak of the evacuations, 45,000 people were out of their homes. As of late September, 1.2 million hectares had burned, and the firefighting efforts had cost the province $518.8 million.

But there's also another number worth considering: no one died, or was gravely injured as a direct result of the fires.

Skrepnek said that's a testament to the people of B.C.

"I've been busy, there's no doubt about it. But there are people who have been out there on four or five tours now — sleeping in tents, working on the fire line, hard, exhausting work. Not to mention the people who have been evacuated and are living in gymnasiums and community centres.

"I think my summer has probably paled in comparison to what they've been through."

Above the fray: a shot from inside a Canadian Forces Griffin helicopter, taken on Sept. 2. (Kevin Skrepnek)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Ghoussoub
@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile.

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