Wildfire fighting: On the Front Lines

·3 min read

As day turned to night the true extent of the Keremeos Creek wildfire became all too apparent to initial attack firefighters on the front line. On that night in late July, in the darkness the dense smoke reflected the eerie orange glow of the brightly burning wood fuel as the flames quickly ravaged the steep forest terrain. Penticton’s Mitch Taylor was there along with the rest of his BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) crew to do what they could to save the nearby homes whose families had already fled. This particular blaze however did not have the typical overnight behaviour. “We kind of expected the fire to quiet down but that night and for several other nights there was what we call a thermal belt, so the fire was actually burning the same as it was in the middle of the day,” recalled Taylor, 32, who is in his seventh summer as a firefighter and second with BCWS. “It was a stressful couple of nights and the fire behaviour was very intense, so we worked all night just trying to ensure all the houses were fine. “A lot of the night time stuff is monitoring because it’s obviously dangerous to do other things. That was an insanely steep fire in the area where it took off.” In spite of the danger, whenever the fire threatened residences team members moved in to set up sprinklers and get water on the approaching flames. “When you’re fighting the fire, of course you think about those people whose homes we’re trying to save,” said Taylor. “We all know people who have been evacuated and we do our best to protect their property and everything they’ve spent their lives working for.” For the three nights they were there, their workday began at 6 p.m. and lasted until 10 a.m. the next morning, but as tired as they were, there was not much sleep to be had. “The overnights get to people for sure,” said Taylor “It’s the middle of the day and it’s bright out and you say OK, it’s time to sleep and your body is saying, ‘What are you doing man?’ “When you’re on a fire and you’re trying to control all these variables, the crews and look after yourself and everyone around you and then you’re at home and shutoff, well no, that’s not happening.”

Being on the Penticton initial attack team is one of his favourite parts of being a firefighter. “It’s a really tough job, it’s hot and it’s smoky, it’s steep, it’s ashy, but it’s also really rewarding,” said Taylor. “Working with a team and doing something meaningful I think is what I enjoy most about it. “I love being in the forest and being outside, I like the excitement.” The hardest part of the job? “Well, it is exciting, but that can be a double-edged sword, fire seasons can get exhausting, it puts you through a lot of physical and mental stress and it takes you away from your family and loved ones for long periods of time,” he said. Some of his best friends are the people on the crews he has worked with on the front line, in fact they become much more than friends. “You’re family at the end of the season,” said Taylor. “Your lives depend on each other for safety, morale, everything really. Your crew and other crews around you are your brothers and sisters.” When he sees signs people put up thanking the wildfire crews for their work it always brings a smile to his face. “When somebody says thank you I really appreciate it,” said Taylor. “Firefighters give up their summers and their time with loved ones so the fact that people are grateful really means a lot to us.”

Mark Brett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald