To the casual observer, the Vernon Wildfire Camp might look more like a kids’ summer camp than a place for firefighters to rest between shifts.
Hundreds of colourful tents are spread across what’s normally used as a sports field, like a giant patchwork game of hopscotch. They take up every open slope and swale, as power generators whine, keeping the lights on and the coffee cream cold.
This BC Wildfire Service camp is housing more than 400 firefighters and support staff who, on a day in late August, are responding to the White Rock Lake wildfire in the Okanagan region of British Columbia. Crews have been here since mid-July, and everyone works 12-hour shifts each day, as they have for many weeks. Breakfast ends at 7 a.m. and most are deep into sleep just after 9 p.m. By early September, the wildfire was being contained.
It has been one of the most intense and destructive wildfire seasons in B.C.’s history, with a thick haze covering popular tourism destinations including Vernon, Kelowna, Peachland and Penticton for most of the summer. The Vernon camp was one of several set up in strategic emergency zones, providing space for firefighters’ tents, trucks, kitchen and bathroom facilities, warehouses and incident management offices.
These portraits were taken just as the firefighters returned from work and were heading to dinner – tired, hungry and wearing the day’s work in their eyes and on their faces.
This impromptu portrait session prompted encouraging hoots and laughter among the normally serious crews, here from as far away as Australia. Then, once the photos were taken, they stepped away from the lights and back to their teams, where dinner conversation drifted back to the task at hand.
I’m from France. I’ve been in Quebec eight years. I’m 20 and this is my first year with the SOPFEU crew. ... It’s been a busy summer and I am so happy to be here helping the people of B.C. I have never found a job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I think I have found my place being a firefighter.— Jessie Notot, Societé de protection des forêts contre le feu
We grew up around saws and machinery being farm boys in the country. I grew up in the Loon Lake area. When I was 16 I helped fight a forest fire. And I haven’t been on a fire again until we were evacuated. I felt I needed to help and took the courses required in order to go out. ... It’s the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.— Bill McMullin
I have been fighting wildland fires for 17 years, since I was 17 years old. I love this job. As soon as I hit my first fire I knew I wanted to do this, and I haven’t left forestry since.— Ryan R. Saul
I’m with A+G fire crew out of Princeton, B.C. I treeplant with the same company in the spring before fighting fires. ... The White Rock Lake fire is my second full deployment this summer after fighting the Nk’Mip fire near Osoyoos, B.C., earlier. This summer has been very smokey, and very busy.— Kat Moore
Honestly, this entire season has been an experience in itself with how busy it’s been. Everyone is definitely feeling tired, but the camaraderie and care for each other amongst fire crews, support staff and the public is what’s keeping everyone going strong.— Azmere Chaudhry
This summer I was in Lytton, B.C., Monte Lake, B.C., Kiliney Beach, B.C., and at the OKIB [Okanagan Indian Band] fire. I have never witnessed entire communities burn down before, and this year I saw four.— Glenn Brubaker