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Smokejumpers get the drop on forest fires

The Story

It's forest fire season in La Ronge, Sask. and a group of new recruits is training to fight them. But these aren't your average firefighters; they're smokejumpers. Since 1949 this squad has flown to fires in remote areas and descended by parachute to battle blazes with equipment dropped in for them. They're the only such team in Canada, and the CBC profiles them in the 20/20 episode "Diary of a Smokejumper." 

Medium: Television
Program: 20/20
Broadcast Date: July 25, 1964
Guest(s): Frank Tompkins
Host: Harry Mannis
Narrator: Walt Unger
Duration: 26:11

Did You know?

• Saskatchewan's smokejumpers were Canada's first aerial firefighting team. The unit was founded in 1949 and disbanded in 1967.

• The Yukon and Northwest Territories both used contract smokejumpers intermittently from 1974 to 1995, but ended the practice with a decision to hire only local, non-contract workers to fight fires.

• Smokejumping teams continue to operate in Russia, where the smokejumping program began in 1937. In the United States, smokejumpers have been fighting fires since 1939.

• The first people paid to fight forest fires were park wardens working in Canada's national parks starting in 1909.

• Most forest firefighters in Canada are hired on a seasonal basis by the provinces, territories and Parks Canada.

• When a forest fire is particularly bad, authorities call in firefighters from other regions. A forest fire in northern Ontario in June 2003 was fought by crews from the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

• Training for forest firefighters can range from two days for Emergency Forest Firefighters in New Brunswick to six weeks for experienced firefighters joining Alberta's Rapattack team, which rappels down from helicopters to fire sites.

• Many jurisdictions also demand that firefighters pass a fitness test. Applicants must prove they can run quickly, lift heavy items and drag pumps and hoses through the bush.

• Forest fire fighters in New Brunswick earned an average of $17 per hour in 2002; in B.C. in 1931 wages were 25 cents an hour.

• Most forest fires are first confronted by an initial attack crew. A fire management officer assesses the fire by plane and decides what resources are required. The initial attack crew is two to 20 people who arrive by ground or helicopter to fight the fire. If they can't contain it in a day, the fire is considered an "escaped fire."

• In Saskatchewan, initial attack crews contain all but two to four per cent of fires that are 10 hectares or smaller.

• According to the 1991 book Forest Fires, suppressing a forest fire usually employs one of three strategies: control, containment or confinement.

• In the control method, firefighters chop down trees, clear brush and dig trenches to build a "control line" around the edges of the fire. At the centre of the control line is the "fire line," a strip of mineral soil. Water is pumped to cool hot spots within 100 metres of the edge of the fire.

• Among the tools crews use to build control lines are axes, chainsaws, shovels, pumps and hoses, and a pulaski (an axe/hoe device). Bulldozers are also sometimes used.

• A fire is said to be contained when the fire line around it is complete and the fire is not
expected to spread. Hot spots are untreated.

• The confinement strategy uses no fire line; instead, fire crews keep an eye on it and prevent it from escaping beyond designated barriers or boundaries.

• Another firefighting method involves directing the fire's movement. This is often accomplished by setting a "backfire." This is a fire deliberately set by firefighters ahead of the main fire's path, and it helps to slow down the movement of the main fire by eliminating fuel.

• In 2001 there were 7,713 forest fires recorded by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. They consumed about 630,000 hectares of forest -- a number well below the annual average.

• According to the CIFFC, 29 deaths from 1986 to 2001 were attributed to forest fires.

• In 1995 Alberta firefighter Harro van Bockel died in a rescue operation gone wrong. He and two colleagues were battling a mountaintop fire when the flames drew too close. A helicopter dropped harnesses for the firefighters, but van Bockel was dragged through the treetops when the helicopter ascended to avoid stalling. He was the first Alberta Forest Service firefighter to be killed at work in 46 years.


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