British Columbia·Feature

How firefighters battling B.C.'s wildfires equip against flames and fatigue

Firefighters are working long hours to fight more than 140 wildfires across the province. Here's how one crew in Kamloops is tackling the flames and the fatigue.

'With the long hours we sometimes definitely push ourselves to the limit'

Since the recent rash of wildfires sparked across the province, firefighter Sean Owens has been working 14 day stretches followed by three days off.

"With the long hours we sometimes definitely push ourselves to the limit, so it's really good to get that rest."

On Wednesday, he geared up outside the Kamloops Fire Centre for day five of his rotation — packing hoses, chainsaws and shovels onto his truck.

Initial attack crew

As part of the B.C. Wildfire Service's initial attack crew, he leads a three-person team that arrives first to respond to reports of wildfires around the Kamloops area.

After "sizing up" a fire and liaising with dispatch, they go to work.

"The first thing we're usually doing is looking for a water source ... any access to the fire itself," he said. "Then, we'll start putting a guard around the fire if it needs it and work on suppressing it."

Packed and prepared

His ground crew typically battles blazes between one to three hectares, which are the majority of fires in the province.

But they are prepared for all scenarios.

The top of his truck is bursting with gear suitable for a battle from a helicopter and the necessities for camping.

Next to the bags are canisters of diesel and gas ready to be used for prescribed burns, often needed for ecological preservation, he says.

'It's the best job'

Being a firefighter is something Owens says he's wanted to do since he was a teenager.

"The service you get to give to communities and the forest, it's the best job."

For him, it's not only about protecting the people and structures, but the thousands of hectares of forest around him.

"The forest is one of the greatest things in B.C. itself. It's something that I think should be protected from natural and human factors."

Minimum 8 hours of rest

That belief has motivated Owens to work tirelessly during this busy wildfire season.

Max Birkner, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, says firefighters must get at least eight hours of rest or time away away from a fire in a day, but that rule bends during "extreme circumstances."

"They have to go through a certain procedure to be sure that they are cleared for that time that they were not able to rest for eight hours," he said.

The longest Owens has worked continuously is 24 hours.

"It's difficult," he said. "It's a lot of physical as well as mental fatigue, so it takes a little bit to stay focus and prepared to go to the next fire."

Birkner says that duration is "very, very rare."

He says the agency understands the work has suddenly become more demanding than usual, so within the last two weeks, they've called in hundreds of fire crews from across Canada as backup.

Another 50 technical support staff landed Wednesday morning from Australia.

On a day-to-day basis, Birkner says the wildfire service also brings in pallets of electrolytes, water and serves lunch on the front lines.

As for mental health support, he says the "buddy system" is encouraged in hopes crews will open up to each other and identify potential needs.