British Columbia

Boot camp puts B.C. firefighter recruits to the test as wildfire season looms

Each year, more than 200 young men and women go through a gruelling eight-day boot camp to see if they have what it takes to become a member of the B.C. Wildfire Service.

More than 200 young men and women are learning what it takes to join the B.C. Wildfire Service

Kate Healy is one of 210 recruits at boot camp learning about the skills and mental and physical stamina needed to become a member of the B.C. Wildfire Service. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Kate Healy strikes the hard, dry earth in the hills above Merritt, B.C., with the sharp edge of her pulaski — a type of hand axe used in wildland firefighting.

Between grunts and heavy breaths, she repeatedly brings down the blade as she and a dozen other B.C. Wildfire Service recruits dig a fire guard in the afternoon heat.

"That was pretty hard," Healy admitted after the grueling exercise.

"If it weren't for the team morale, there is no way that you could get me to dig for that long."

The 21-year-old university student is one of about 60 young men and women sweating it out at the B.C. Wildfire Service New Recruit Boot Camp held near Merritt this week. 

A recruits uses a pulaski to dig a fire break at the B.C Wildfire Service boot camp outside of Merritt, British Columbia. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In total, about 210 recruits will test their physical stamina and mental endurance during the eight-day course this spring with the hopes of joining the ranks of the B.C. Wildfire Service. 

For Healy, it's the sense of camaraderie and the physical challenge that drew her to firefighting.

"I think we all came in not really knowing what to expect," Healy said.

"You just get such a feeling of accomplishment achieving these things with this amazing group of people."

As part of an initial attack team, a recruit is tasked with containing and extinguishing an intentionally lit fire in a forest near Merritt on Thursday during a training exercise. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Each year, between 1,000 and 1,500 people apply to the province to join the spring boot camp.

After a series of interviews and fitness assessments, about 200 of them are chosen to attend the training course.

During the course, recruits learn everything from firefighting fundaments, to how to assemble into a initial attack team, to how to contain and extinguish a newly reported forest fire.

"Probably the most special part of boot camp is seeing people come and not know each other, then by day eight becoming almost best friends," said New Recruit Boot Camp chair Kyle Young, who has been leading budding firefighters through their paces for the past 13 seasons.

"Everything we do in the week is based around that. We try to engage everyone and really promote the team work."

Recruits are put into a strike team of five people, where they work to complete firefighting tasks during the eight-day 2019 new recruit boot camp near Merrit, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Days at boot camp start early with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and physical fitness training exercises that include hill sprints, a 10-kilometer run and fire hose pulling drills. 

Recruits then work in strike teams of five people to complete fire fighting tasks that test their endurance and stamina.

Healy initially wondered if she would be physically capable of completing the same tasks as the male recruits, but she said a week of boot camp has shown her that success is more a result of grit and resilience than physical stature.

"We are 100 per cent able to keep up [with the men] and achieve the same standard and kick them at distance runs and things where we can work to our advantages," she said.

Kate Healy enjoys the camaraderie and the physical challenges of new recruit boot camp and she hopes to join an initial attack team for the 2019 wildfire season. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Healy says most of all, she's learned she is capable of exerting herself physically with more intensity and for longer than she'd ever imagined she could.

"When you have that goal for the end and you just want to reach it so much, it is crazy what your mind can get your body to do."

Recruits that complete boot camp will be deployed around the province for the 2019 fire season.

Healy hopes to join an initial attack team so she can be part of a crew sent to newly-reported wildfires, tasked with extinguishing the blaze.


Brady Strachan

CBC Reporter

Brady Strachan is a CBC reporter based in Kelowna, B.C. Besides Kelowna, Strachan has covered stories for CBC News in Winnipeg, Brandon, Vancouver and internationally. Follow his tweets @BradyStrachan


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