British Columbia·Photos

B.C. Wildfire Service recruits sweat it out at boot camp

With significant wildfires burning earlier than usual in Western Canada, about 200 recruits are being drilled and schooled before they're officially hired and deployed to fight fires for the B.C. Wildfire Service.

About 200 recruits are schooled and drilled before they're hired and deployed across the province

Forest firefighting recruits dig a hand guard next to a fire during a training exercise on Thursday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

As wildfire season begins with much more ferocity than usual in Western Canada, a couple hundred young recruits were nearing the end of their rigorous boot camp in Merritt, B.C., on Thursday.

In Alberta, a wildfire has devastated Fort McMurray, destroying at least 1,600 structures and in B.C. Fires in the Peace Region have put much more stress on firefighters than usual.

A new recruit to the B.C. Wildfire Service wields a pulaski, as training crews try to extinguish an intentionally-lit brush fire. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We're well in excess of where we would normally be at, looking at the last ten years on average," said Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service.  "If you were to look at the hectares burned, the amount of area that's burned from wildfires, it's almost 20 times where we'd normally be at this time."

The reality of how destructive wildfires can be to communities was top of mind for the recruits being drilled and taught how to fight brush fires in Merritt. 

Recruit Hannah Kendall says the hard work feels good, as she and the other 200 people at the boot camp sweat it out for eight-and-a-half days before they're hired on as forest firefighters. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"When you consider that there's people and cities and infrastructure that are at risk, it makes you work even harder," said recruit Hannah Kendall. 

"It makes it real, you have to realize that this isn't, like, summer camp, you know? We are going to be out there on the line and working as hard as any other firefighter trying to cool these fires down."

A group of recruits in their red jumpsuit uniforms take a lunch break in between training exercises at the spring boot camp in Merritt. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In B.C., the Wildfire Service needs to hire about 200 new people each year to replenish its seasonal crews. According to Skrepnek, about 1,500 people will apply, and 600 will be interviewed. There's an intense fitness assessment, and about 200 recruits will be invited to the eight-and-a-half day boot camp.

"It's unpaid — they're unhired at this point," said Brandi Burns, a forest protection assistant who's helping to train the recruits as she begins her 11th season as a forest firefighter.

Brandi Burns is a forest protection assistant in the Kamloops fire zone. She was in Merritt helping to train the new recruits. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We've been keeping a close eye on them throughout the week and keeping them motivated and making sure they're happy and doing well," she said.

"It's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of sweat, and it's a lot of fun, typically."

The recruits did seem largely happy, despite the fact that they've been sweating it out day after day for more than a week, and as Burns spoke, they were digging what looked like a shallow ditch with pulaskis, a versatile, axe-like tool for constructing firebreaks, on a hot, dusty afternoon.

Recruit Hannah Kendall uses a pulaski to dig a hand guard, which is used to remove fuel from a brush fire and contain it. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"It feels really good to be doing this kind of work," said Kendall. "This is what you do most of the time when you're fighting fires — hours if it."

Skrepnek also highlighted the fact that the activities during boot camp aren't just exercises to whip the recruits into shape — it's what wildfire fighters do all summer long.

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

"They're going to be climbing up hills with pumps, hoses, finding water sources, and B.C. is obviously a pretty rugged terrain to do that in," he said. "More often than not this is going to be on hot, dry summer days, so that certainly adds to some of those physical demands."

An intentionally lit fire burns along the ground near Merritt on Thursday as firefighting recruits work to extinguish it as part of a training exercise. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Skrepnek said that it's pretty rare for the dirty, soot-covered recruits who make it through boot camp not to be hired and deployed. They'll likely all be joining experienced crews on the front lines of wildfires across B.C. in the coming weeks.

"You know, this is hard, dirty work, [you're] on your hands and knees trying to find hot spots in the ground — certainly not the most glamorous work — but I think the folks that do it love it."

A group of B.C. Wildfire Service recruits marches in single file during training exercises on Thursday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)