B.C. Wildfire Service expects crush of applications following busy year

The provincial government employs around 1,000 firefighters to battle wildfires throughout the province each season. For those already on the squad they say it's a unique job but challenging.

Roughly 1,000 firefighters employed each year by service, deadline to apply is January 15

The B.C. Wildfire Service employs around 1,000 firefighters each season. Turnover in the ranks means about 200 new people are hired each year. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The B.C. Wildfire Service says it's expecting a lot more job applications in 2018 following the province's record-setting season last year.

The province employs around 1,000 wildfire firefighters seasonally to work on the front lines of fires, which numbered 1,341 in 2017 and burned more than 1.2 million hectares.

Kevin Skrepnek, the service's chief fire information officer, says there is a 20 per cent turnover rate, meaning it hires about 200 new people each year as firefighters. 

He expects at least 1,500 applications for the front line spots when the deadline closes on Monday.

"It's meaningful work and I think that's a big aspect for people," Skrepnek said.

The service often sees an increase in applications after summers when wildfires dominate headlines.

'I was super stoked'

Shaelie Bramley applied  a year ago while finishing a diploma in outdoor recreation management at Capilano University.

Bramley, 22, played competitive soccer and wanted something exciting to do outdoors.

"Oh I was super stoked yeah," she said referring to a nine-day boot camp in Merritt, a kind of tryout and training session which included a gruelling fitness test.

"To be honest, I was a little bit nervous for that one, but it went well and I was able to do it," she said.

A group of B.C. Wildfire Service recruits marches in single file during training exercises at a boot camp in Merritt, B.C. in May 2016. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Bramley made it through the camp and was hired, starting May 1, 2017.

Her first work came in helping deal with last spring's floods in Kelowna, but by July she was battling flames for the first time in Little Fort, near Clearwater, about 120 kilometres north of Kamloops.

The deployment with a 20-person crew, based out of Kamloops and named the Bighorns, would set the standard for the rest of the season until she finished working for the service in October.

"It was super crazy and I definitely didn't expect this season to be as busy as it was," she said. "I was definitely just thrown into it."

Bramley said her crew would go out on two-week deployments where they would sleep outside in tents, wake up, fight fires, eat, sleep and then repeat.

They got three days off in between deployments.

"There were days where you kind of slip into a little bit of a funk," she said but added that the team atmosphere of the crews helped to keep going.

Safety first

As for safety, Bramley said while the terrain and conditions were often punishing, she never felt in danger.

Indeed, Skrepnek is thankful that considering how dramatic this past fire season was for firefighters and those forced to evacuate their homes — some 65,000 — there was not a single fatality.

Injuries sustained by firefighters also seem to be steady, with the majority being strains, sprains or cuts.

Statistics from the provincial government show the following injuries reported for B.C. Wildfire Service staff over a four-year period. Data is not yet available for the latest fire season:

  • 2013 — 144 injuries [1,861 fires].
  • 2014 — 144 injuries [1,481 fire].
  • 2015 — 152 injuries [1,858 fires].
  • 2016 — 91 injuries [1,050 fires].

"Safety-wise, I usually felt pretty safe for what we were working in," said Bramley. 

Bramley stayed in Kamloops after the last year's fire season ended and will work for the service again this year and perhaps in the future.

She encourages others to go for a spot with the service. "It's an awesome job."