'I can do what any guy can do': Faces on the front lines of Saskatchewan's wildfire fight

First Nation recruits are training to battle a busy wildfire season in Saskatchewan. If conditions remain dry, firefighters predict blazes could stretch border to border.

The province has already seen an additional 47 wildfires this season compared to the 5-year average

An instructor teaches Denay Billette, 24, how to aim a fire hose during a firefighting training program in northern Saskatchewan. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Denay Billette leans into the dense boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan, a long yellow hose dragging across her right shoulder. "Hold on tight," her instructor says. "You got this."

The 24-year-old is dressed head to toe in safety gear: a red uniform and helmet, safety glasses, black boots and earplugs to reduce the noise from a nearby portable pump. 

Half a dozen other people stand behind her, holding onto the hose to keep it steady as she clutches the nozzle and blasts water into a stand of evergreen trees. "Nice and slow," said her instructor. "Right on! Good job."

Billette is one of four female Indigenous recruits out of a class of 40 selected by their First Nations to receive training last week from the Prince Albert Grand Council on the shores of Lac la Plonge, near Beauval, Sask., to battle the province's wildfires this season.

Billette is one of four Indigenous females in a class of 40 who recently qualified to fight wildfires in Saskatchewan. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"I can do what any guy can do," Billette said. "It's not hard. You just got to work. Push yourself. Dedication. That's all it takes to do anything."

Under the program, First Nations and northern communities choose people from their regions to send to the front lines of Saskatchewan's wildfire fight. It's run in partnership with the provincial government, and participants are given seasonal contracts that will see them working to suppress and prevent fires across the province all summer long.

There were 353 wildfires last year in Saskatchewan, according to the Prince Albert Grand Council, which impacted the hunting, trapping and fishing activities of its Indigenous communities.

Busy start to wildfire season

Billette is a second-generation firefighter from Buffalo River Dene Nation in northern Saskatchewan, about 500 kilometres north of Saskatoon. She grew up watching and smelling smoke from wildfires close by, and has stayed behind with her parents during several evacuations to protect her community. 

"Lives can be taken," Billette said. "If there's no firefighters, then everything will be gone just like that."

Cliff Buettner has been fighting wildfires in Saskatchewan for more than four decades. He now serves as the forestry program director for the Prince Albert Grand Council. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

And Billette is expecting to be busy this summer. 

There have already been 198 wildfires in Saskatchewan so far this year, according to the provincial government. The province's five-year average is 151.

The province has added three new emergency firefighter crews this year, which step in help the other provincial, First Nation and northern community firefighting teams. It says it also training more crew leaders and funding more fire-prevention projects.

Unless there is significant rain, dry leaves and branches will help wildfires spread quickly. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

But ultimately, crews are at "the mercy of the weather," said Cliff Buettner, a forestry program director with the Prince Albert Grand Council, who oversees training. 

"We pray for rain."

Goal to lead a crew of all women

While a two-week fire ban for open fires on all provincial Crown land south of the Churchill River has been lifted after some rainfall, there hasn't been enough moisture to ease the threat of fire.

The neighbouring provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia are also battling early wildfires this season.

Terry Touet, a firefighter trainer with the Prince Albert Grand Council, says he's concerned current conditions could mean a repeat of 1995, when wildfires stretched from border-to-border in the province. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

If conditions remain dry, Billette and her instructors are predicting a repeat of 1995, when blazes in Saskatchewan stretched border-to-border.

"Right now, it's not looking good," said Terry Touet, a firefighting trainer with the Prince Albert Grand Council. "If we start getting dry lightning, it sure could be 1995 all over again."

The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU) has argued that a fitness test introduced by the province is not really representative of firefighting operations, and is not appropriate to judge minimal standards. (Don Somers/CBC)

Billette said she isn't fazed; she wants to take her training as far as she can go and hopes to be placed in charge of a crew. 

"I haven't seen many crew boss ladies," she said. "That would be a goal for me … to have a crew of all women."

Following in his mother's footsteps

Nicholas Francois, 21, another recruit from Buffalo River Dene Nation, is also following in some family footsteps.

His mother was a firefighter — and fought fires while pregnant with him.

A total of 40 new firefighter recruits received training last week off the shores of Lac la Plonge, in northern Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC)

"I want to make my mom happy and show her that I can do what she did," Francois said. "I've never had a father figure. So that's what I want to do ... I want to further her career."

Like Billette, Francois grew up watching smoke pour over Peter Pond Lake, just outside his community; he said it sparked something inside of him and he recalls wanting to be out battling the blaze.

"I have to go to that fire … Go shut it out with the crew."

Nicholas Francois, 21, is following in his mom's footsteps by becoming a firefighter. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

While they're not fighting wildfires, Francois and Billette will be using their training to make sure their community is fire-safe: they'll be setting up a sprinkler line, and removing dead branches and fallen leaves from the surrounding woods through controlled burns. 

A rare opportunity

"It's nice to follow in my mother's footsteps," said Francois. "It's something I've always looked forward to doing since I was a kid."

Buettner said the seasonal contracts also provide the trainees with some "recognition" in the community. "It gives them an employment opportunity where, in some of the communities, very little employment opportunity exists," he said.

After training, the recruits receive a seasonal contract to fight wildfires for the province. (Don Somers/CBC)

But for Billette and Francois, the ultimate goal is to protect their community and perhaps inspire others through their work.

"If I can go all the way, I'm going to try to go all the way," Billette said. "It would be an honour."


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: