British Columbia

Fighting fires and fatigue: Veteran warns wildfire crews about risk of burning out

Jake Jacobson, who has spent 26 years in the line of fires, teaches crews to take care of themselves during training.

Jake Jacobson, who has spent 26 years in the line of fires, teaches crews to take care of themselves

Between the weather, the flames, and B.C.'s mountainous terrain, fighting wildfires in the province is 'exhausting and hot work,' says Jake Jacobson. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

With more than 600,000 hectares burned and hundreds of fires still raging across British Columbia, firefighters have a monumental task to control the flames.

Fatigue is a real concern during emergencies like this summer's wildfires, says longtime firefighter Jake Jacobson.

"There are a lot of people who just soldier on through when they should take breaks," he told Renee Filippone, guest host of CBC's The Early Edition.

Jacobson, a firefighter contract trainer in Salmon Arm, B.C., and fire warden in the Vernon Fire Zone, has been in the service for more than three decades and on the front lines for 26 years.

"It's exhausting and hot work," the 75-year-old said.

"You're working during hot weather and then there's the heat of the flames. And in B.C., most of our real estate is up and down so now you're climbing up and down mountains."

2018 has become one of the worst wildfire years on record in the province. (Submitted by Tracy Calogheros)

Changing culture

Frontline shifts should be about 12 hours a day but often run longer. 

In 1998, during the Silver Creek wildfires, Jacobson ended up working 60 days in a row with just one day off.

"Hopefully, that culture is changing," Jacobson said. "It used to be a lot more hard nosed than it is now."

Teaching firefighters to care for themselves and avoid burning out is something Jacobson emphasizes when he's training crews.

"I encourage the firefighters if they are fatigued or if they feel off to go the supervisor and say, 'I've got to go to the truck and sleep for an hour,'' he said.

"I'd rather have a firefighter sleeping in the truck than falling down on the fire line."

Despite the hardships of the job, Jacobson is adamant that the cost is worth it.

"We want to do some good for our community," he said. 

"When you're out there and it's your community, you just find the energy and you just keep going."

With files from The Early Edition.

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