Growing up in a city in Southern Ontario, Michelle Wigmore didn't know anything about wildfires until she met some men fighting forest fires in Northern Ontario in the early 1990s.
"I was thinking, 'This sounds like the greatest job in the universe,' " Ms. Wigmore remembers. "And I was right. It is the greatest job in the universe."
Twenty-three years later, Ms. Wigmore is one of the most experienced firefighters in Alberta and leads 19 firefighters in the Wild Mountain Unit Crew, an elite wildfire unit based out of Hinton, Alta.
Among firefighters in Alberta, Ms. Wigmore has earned a reputation as a hard worker, a great leader who can carry as much hose as everyone on her team and does everything possible to keep her crew motivated and safe.
Firefighter Kristian Toivonen says he left a position leading another type of crew to be a subleader on Ms. Wigmore's unit, based wholly on the reputation of her leadership. "I liked the individual," he says. "I liked her personality, I liked her leadership, and her competency, more than anything."
Growing up active in sports and other activities, Ms. Wigmore says wildfire fighting seemed a perfect fit. She liked the mental and physical challenge, the excitement of a job where you never know what is coming next. Though there hadn't been a woman on the Northern Ontario crews for a while, she soon found herself right at home.
"You work with really great people that are like-minded," she says. "You get to push yourself both physically and mentally trying to figure out the best way to action the fire. All the different places that we get to go and see, it's overall a great experience."
The Wild Mountain Unit Crew is one of eight specialized wildfire crews that were created based on recommendations from the report into the Slave Lake wildfire in Alberta in 2011. Ms. Wigmore has led the unit since it was formed in 2013, and is currently one of two women on the 20-person team. Of the 360 provincial wildfire fighters who worked on the Fort McMurray blaze in the past week, 21 are women.
Ms. Wigmore and her team had been working on a blaze west of Edmonton when the Fort McMurray fire broke out on May 1. Her team got a call that evening, telling them to head to Fort McMurray early Monday morning. They arrived to meet the fire now known to many as "the beast."
"The first part of the week, we tried everything we could to hold the fire and stop it from going into town," she says. "It was long hours, we worked 24 hours straight one day trying to stop it from hitting the airport. We kept losing, and the fire kept winning."
Ms. Wigmore says she texted friends and family when she could to let them know she was okay, and that she was safe. In one photo posted on Facebook, fire rages behind her, the entire sky blazing orange and red.
"My family's pretty down-to-earth about that stuff, or realistic," she says. "Other guys are calling their parents and their parents are freaking out, but mine are kind of used to this."
Branden Aasman, another firefighter on Ms. Wigmore's team, says she kept them focused and safe, even as the historic wildfire raged around them. The unit is so close, the firefighters describe it as more like a family.
"She just makes sure that safety is No. 1, and that we're always in a good place," Mr. Aasman says. "Our safety is never compromised with her."
Mr. Toivonen says part of Ms. Wigmore's skill is her ability to stay calm and cool-headed, regardless of the situation. "We are often put in pretty sketchy situations, and the fact that you can keep your calm and serenity under fire is really important to getting the job done," he says. "And she's a master of that."
Ms. Wigmore says the past week has been very intense for her unit, but was also positive. She says it felt good to make gains, to know that they were helping stop the fire, and protecting the community.
After 16 days of firefighting, Ms. Wigmore's crew was headed home on Tuesday for three days off. She says she has heard they may be returning to Fort McMurray right after that to keep fighting the historic blaze.
"That'd be great," she says. "I'd love to do that."