On the frontlines of B.C.’s wildfire fight

Where crews are being tested like almost never before
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Al Ritchie has been a firefighter for nearly a decade. He actually quit for a while, and went into private business with a buddy. But now he’s back, working for the Princeton Sierras’ Unit Crew.

“I missed it too much,” he says, as he carefully hones the teeth on his chainsaw blade after a day on the fireline south of Vanderhoof, B.C. 

The Sierras are one of the BC Wildfire Service’s rare live-on-base unit crews. That means for most of the summer, the team of 20 firefighters live and work together nearly 24 hours a day for weeks on end. They’re often tasked with holding the line against fires that have grown too large for the more nimble initial attack teams. It’s dirty, difficult and often unglamorous work, but the bonds they form are nearly as tight as their carefully-rolled shirt sleeves.

As one of the Sierras tree fallers, Ritchie specializes in assessing and cutting down dangerous trees to allow other members of the crew safe access to work areas. Even more than flames, falling trees are one of the biggest risks crews face: two Canadian firefighters have been killed this year by tree strikes.

As B.C. faces its worst wildfire season ever — and the worst in Canada — crews like the Sierras are being tested like almost never before. Resources are stretched thin, and thousands of firefighters have been called in from around the world. The Canadian military has been called out to help.

A trees candles with flame in a smoky forest
A spot fire burns near the fire guard around the Tsah Creek Wildfire, outside Fort St. James. Wildfires are mercurial beasts — they can smolder innocuously for days or weeks. But when temperatures rise, humidity decreases and wind picks up, they can stand up and run. Spot fires ignited by embers on the wind ahead of the main fire, or outside containment lines, are common, and must be chased down quickly.

Last year at this time, crew member Connor Clouston says, the Sierras were just rolling out on their first fire. This year they’ve already seen four deployments, including to Alberta, and are expecting to see seven or eight before the season is over.

In mid-July on the Bulkley Nechako fire complex near Vanderhoof, there were firefighters from at least four different nations: the BC Wildfire Service crews, as well as firefighters from Mexico, Australia and both hotshots and smokejumpers from the U.S.

Backed up by contract firefighters, heavy equipment operators, helicopters, air tankers and a buzzing operations and logistics centre, the battle against the Bulkley Nechako fires is just one small front in a much larger campaign across the province. And at only mid-July, there is still plenty of fire season left to go.

BC Wildfire: A wildfire fighter stands on a ridge in a smoky forest that has an orange haze
A BC Wildfire Service firefighter from the Columbia Unit Crew stands on a ridge, working as a look out for the rest of her crew near the head of the fire. Lookouts are critical for crew safety, watching for spot fires and changes in fire behaviour.
BC Wildfire: a firefighter with the Alaska Smoke Jumpers eats a pizza near a pickup truck in a smoky forest
Fletcher Yancey, a firefighter with the Alaska Smoke Jumpers, eats pizza during a brief break in the action on the Tsah Creek Wildfire near Fort St. James. Nearly two weeks after being declared a wildfire of note, triggering tactical evacuations from a nearby bible camp and threatening to close Highway 27, the fire was brought much closer to being considered “held,” or unlikely to spread beyond containment lines — thanks to the work of Yancey’s unit and two B.C. unit crews.
BC Wildfire: A firefighter laughs as she tries to wrangle an unruly fire hose that's leaking
Cowley laughs while trying to quell an unruly fire hose that sprung a leak during a planned ignition on the Tsah Creek Wildfire near Fort St. James.
BC Wildfire: Two wildfire fighters use drip torches to set a planned ignition they are using to fight a wildfire in northern B.C.
Cowley follows Alaska Smoke Jumper Eli Seligman as they use drip torches to set a planned ignition along a control line on the Tsah Creek Wildfire, near Fort St. James.
BC Wildfire: Wildfire fighters watch as a planned ignition takes off at night on a wildfire in northern BC
Alaska Smoke Jumpers Fletcher Yancey (left), Tyler Moylan (centre) and Aaron Schumacher (right) look on from a machine-built guard as a planned ignition takes off at night no the Tsah Creek Wildfire.
Where crews are being tested like almost never before
Princeton Sierras unit crew member Connor Clouston gets treatment from athletic therapist Kerri Dunsmore at a fire camp in Vanderhoof. In the past few years, as demands on fire crews have increased, the BC Wildfire Service has implemented programs like athletic therapy to better support its firefighters.
Firefighters line up to collect their breakfast from the catering window at a firecamp in northern B.C.
Firefighters collect their breakfast from a caterer at a fire camp in Vanderhoof. Unlike some work camps, fire camps in B.C. have a reputation for serving decent food. This week’s servings included steak cooked to order, a full turkey dinner and roast chicken.
Three firefighters stand near a forest that's been affected by fire
Firefighters from the Princeton Sierra’s unit crew discuss strategy for safely evaluating an area with fire-compromised trees. Two firefighters have died in Canada so far this season from tree strikes. Falling trees, especially in fire-compromised areas, is one of the biggest safety risks firefighters face on the job in Canada.
BC Wildfire: Firefighters dig deep into the forest floor to find fire hotspots
Firefighters from the Princeton Sierra’s unit crew work together to dig a hotspot out of the deep forest floor on a fire south of Vanderhoof. Because fires can burn deep into organic matter and root systems, they can smolder for weeks or months if not detected. The process — called “cold trailing” — involves digging up the area and feeling for hotspots and heat with bare hands.
BC wildfire: firefighters role hoses, with trees in the background
Firefighters roll hose after dousing an area along the fire’s edge on a wildfire south of Vanderhoof. Despite being seemingly out, fires can smoulder underground for days or weeks, flaring to life again when the wind and conditions are right.
A sawyer sharpens his chainsaw next to a row of trucks
Princeton Sierras’ Al Ritchie sharpens his chainsaw after a day spent falling trees in a dangerous area of a wildfire burning south of Vanderhoof.
BC wildfire: Two firefighters hug as others, with bags slung over the shoulders stand nearby a group of trucks
The Princeton Sierras are one of the live-on-base unit crews in British Columbia, meaning the crew members live together both on- and off- the fire line. The bonds they form are nearly as tight as their carefully-rolled shirt sleeves.

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