P.E.I. forestry employees gain valuable experience fighting fires in other provinces

P.E.I. forestry employees are preparing for what they anticipate will be another busy summer fighting fires in other parts of Canada.

'The fire season is starting earlier, lasting longer and the intensity is certainly higher'

This is a portable tank set up by a P.E.I. crew in British Columbia. (Submitted by Mike Montigny)

P.E.I. forestry employees are preparing for what they anticipate will be another busy summer fighting fires in other parts of Canada.

"We've been sending a lot of firefighters away to help with other provinces and territories over the last 10 years," said Mike Montigny, manager of field services for Forest, Fish and Wildlife on P.E.I.

"We've seen that number increasing every year."

The fire protection team on P.E.I. is made up of forestry employees who have other jobs when they're not fighting fires.

An export is any time P.E.I. sends resources to a fire, whether it's an individual or a crew. 

There were five exports from P.E.I. to B.C. in 2017, including 12 forestry crew who were stationed at 100 Mile House. (Submitted by Nick Thompson)

The wildland firefighting crew, as it's called, specializes in fires in the open environment, in the grass, bush or forest.  

P.E.I. took part in five exports in 2018 to High Level, Alta., Cochrane, Ont., Parry Sound, Ont., Merritt, B.C. and Castelgar, B.C.

The P.E.I. crew joined other firefighters in Fort McMurray in 2016. (Submitted by Mike Montigny)

Greater demand

Montigny said climate change is putting the P.E.I. crews into greater demand than ever. 

"Certainly we've seen things changing and I think that's indicated in the number of requests that we're getting," Montigny said.

"The fire season is starting earlier, it's lasting longer and the intensity during that time is certainly higher than we've seen in the past. All indications are that trend is going to continue."

These four P.E.I. firefighters battled the Cochrane 08 fire near the Quebec border in 2018. (Submitted by Andrew Ing)

Montigny said the P.E.I. crews gain valuable experience when they spend time fighting fires in other parts of the country.

"It's really important to be able to come back and have the confidence and know that you can deal with these fires," Montigny said.

"We've been really lucky and fortunate here that we haven't seen a lot of great big fires happening in the last few years on P.E.I."

Gaining experience

Montigny has been exported five times, as they call the assignments off-Island, both as a firefighter and in management.

"Like any major incident or emergency situation, you need to be able to operate it efficiently so we have folks that are able to at those specialized high-end roles," Montigny said.

"To be able to go out and not just be at the end of the hose but to run that fire and know how to get logistical things. We need people who know that side of the business as well."

The P.E.I. flag flies above tents in B.C. in 2017. (Lowell Stevenson)

Another challenge for Montigny is replacing some of the forestry staff who are looking toward retirement.

"It takes a long time to get a professional firefighter trained on the wildland side and so we're seeing that challenge," Montigny said.

"It will take us a long time to build up that capacity but we're working on it."

'Well respected'

Forest technician Lowell Stevenson agrees the experience off-Island is important.

He has been exported twice, serving as a fire information officer at B.C. wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

Forest technician Lowell Stevenson has been exported twice, serving as a fire information officer at B.C. wildfires in 2017 and 2018. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"You're informing the public to what's going on with the situation on the fires and the reason that's important is public safety," said Stevenson.

"The resources are taxed, people need to take a break and they don't have enough people to cover it all off so then they start calling people in from other jurisdictions to help." 

This is the Southeast Fire Centre in Castlegar, B.C. where Lowell Stevenson was stationed as a fire information officer. (Lowell Stevenson)

Stevenson said P.E.I.'s firefighting crew is growing its reputation as it does more and more export assignments.

"The people from here are recognized, they're put in the position to do these jobs and they don't take a back seat to anybody," Stevenson said.

"We're well-respected and the patch on our arm is recognized in these places."

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog.


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