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From the inferno: Fighting wildfires in a disastrous summer

Every time a new wildfire breaks out in B.C. an initial attack crew has to get there fast — by truck, helicopter or hiking through the bush with all their equipment on their backs.

“It’s definitely physical work,” said Jess Oundjian, a first-year firefighter working in Kamloops. “When you are right on a fire you get inundated with smoke and ash, sometimes it feels like you’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes, but it doesn’t last long.”

The three-person crews are the first to respond to new wildfire calls, rushing to the scene in trucks kitted out with 400 gallons of water, 2,000 feet of hose, chainsaws and three different types of pumps. There are 27 such crews based at Kamloops Fire Centre.

“Anything we find, we should be able to adapt to it,” Oundjian said. “We sometimes camp out overnight next to the fire and get up early and get back on it.”

Jess Oundjian serves on an initial attack crew in Kamloops for the B.C. Wildfire Service. 

Initial attackers never have the ease and convenience of hooking up to a fire hydrant. Crews often haul all their equipment into the bush on foot.

“If a new fire gets called in, it’s our job to hunt  it down,” said Oundjian. “We don’t necessarily know where it is, and that means hiking half a day through the woods to find the fire. It’s pretty exciting, half the excitement is the chase.”

They arrive armed with chainsaws and pulaskis — heavy double-sided tools that combine an axe and an adze blade — and get to work cutting wood and digging trenches, setting up a guard to stop the fire’s spread.

Small fires — most fires are just a few hectares — will be extinguished by the crew. If the blaze proves too much, they call for help.

Oundjian, who also handles first aid on her crew, is keen to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“It’s been hot, but we have Gatorade on tap and we have so much bottled water you wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s important because one of the biggest concerns when you are fighting fires is heat exhaustion.”

Oundjian was encouraged by her fellow B.C. ski patrollers to take a stab at firefighting, as many of them do in the off-season.

“I became an initial attack firefighter because I wanted to be out in the bush, exploring and staying overnight,” she said. “I like the independence and having to think on my feet.”

The crews spend quieter days cleaning the trucks and maintaining equipment, so they are ready for the next call. 

Larger crews fighting major fires are often on the job for 14 days in a row, and then off for three days to rest. The B.C. Wildfire Service has strictly curtailed media access to firefighters to ensure they get the rest that they need on their downtime.

The 2017 fire season has been disastrous, blowing away 70 years of records.

As of Friday, nearly 12,000 square kilometres of B.C. forest has been destroyed by 1,217 fires, easily eclipsing the record of 8,560 square kilometres set in 1958. Over the past 10 years an average of 1,549 square kilometres has been lost due to wildfire.

There are still 19 communities with evacuation orders and 37 more with alerts, according to Chris Duffy, executive director of Emergency Management BC.

The province has spent $484.7 million fighting fires so far this year, compared with $122 million last year.

Conditions are so dry in some parts of the province that a single heavy rain will not improve conditions, said Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.’s chief fire information officer.

“We will need a good two or three days of steady rain before we see much benefit in getting fires under control,” he said. “It varies region by region, but we need quite a soaking and there are limits to how much water can be absorbed at one time.”

Rainfall records dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s were shattered by this summer’s drought, according to Environment Canada meteorologist Doug Lundquist.

Williams Lake had its second driest summer ever. Penticton, Vernon, Kamloops, Kelowna and Cranbrook all had their driest summer since records have been kept. 

“Kamloops has had only nine millimetres of rain, and the average is 93,” Lundquist said. “Kelowna has had seven millimetres of rain, and we usually get about 110.”

A cooler system is moving across the province now that will bring wind and lightning, but only a few millimetres of rain inland. Conditions in the Kootenays and southwestern Interior are not likely to improve in the next couple of weeks. 

“The southern Interior has two dry seasons, spring and fall, so we are coming into our driest season now,” he said. “It’s not over yet … the kind of steady rain that would help with fires is almost impossible in the (short term).”

That is not good news for 3,511 personnel called into action by the wildfire service this year.

rshore@postmedia.com

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