The Current

B.C.'s wildfires spark mental health concern for firefighters: chief

Fire chief Stan McCarthy on the unimaginable summer of 2017 — 41 days straight fighting B.C.'s worst forest fires on record.

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"We've had a pretty hectic summer."

Those words that sum up the past few months for Stan McCarthy, the fire chief for 150 Mile House in B.C.'s interior, is putting it mildly.

The community was one of the first to be evacuated this summer as the province was suddenly confronted with the worst wildfire season in its history. 

Since July, B.C. has been under a state of emergency — and the threat is not over yet as some 150 wildfires continue to rage in the province.

While the evacuation order for 150 Mile House was lifted on July 27, there are still more than 3,000 residents who cannot return home.

There'sgoing to be a long after effect with the mental health of some of the guys.- Fire Chief Stan McCarthy on the toll of B.C. wildfires on his crew

McCarthy says the hot and furious flames of this summer's wildlife crisis came on fast, "like as a freight train coming."

"We had a lightning strike right close to our community and then this forest fire started ... so we knew we were in trouble fairly quickly," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

A stove sits among the remains of a structure that burned in a wildfire on the Ashcroft First Nation near Ashcroft, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

McCarthy, a 37-year-veteran of the fire department, worked around the clock for 41 days straight to battle the blaze.

Although none of his crew members were seriously injured on the job, the long hours and exhausting physical labour add an emotional toll on the volunteer force, McCarthy says.

"I think there's going to be a long after effect with the mental health of some of the guys, because some of the guys got pretty scared ... I know we're going to have to do some follow-up with that."

The Elephant Hill wildfire burns through the hillside near Clinton, B.C., Aug. 8, 2017. (Master Cpl. Malcolm Byers/Wainwright Garrison Imaging)

And it's not just battling fires that McCarthy and his crew take on. They also checked in on homes to make sure residents were safe after power was eventually restored to the community, and even help neighbours with their groceries. 

"Some nights you come home and you think, 'Oh man, am I ever tired, but am I ever glad we done this,'" he exclaims. He also describes how overwhelming it is to lose "a total of five structures ... I couldn't tell you how many we saved."

The landscape surrounding 150 Mile House remains burnt but McCarthy says things are slowly getting back to normal.

Still, residents know without rain, the flames could return.

A wildfire burning near Williams Lake, B.C., at end of July. Fire Chief Stan McCarthy says the huge clouds of smoke is a sight he'll never forget. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

When asked what he'll remember most from the ordeal, McCarthy cites the huge clouds of smoke.

"It looked like an atomic bomb went off, when you see the big billows of smoke," he tells Tremonti.

"And you know there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to wait."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Cathy Simon.