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Will Grimm with BC Wildfire Services doses hotspots as crews mop-up after a successful controlled burn at the North end of the Sechelt forest fire on B.C.'s Sunshine coast July 9, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Braving the blazes

In British Columbia, more than 2,300 workers are risking their lives battling upwards of 200 active wildfires. Reporter Andrea Woo and photographer John Lehmann joined one team putting out a blaze along the Sunshine Coast

Working swiftly, they march into the bush, yellowed grass and parched tree branches crunching under the weight of their boots.

They tip their drip-torches, spilling flaming fuel onto the arid land. The fires spread, racing across the carpet of tinder-dry earth, then upward, consuming trees that are 10 or more metres high. The heat – warm at first, then uncomfortably intense – forces others to hustle down the dusty logging road.

They are members of the B.C. Wildfire Service, one of several teams fighting more than 200 active wildfires in the province. They are conducting a controlled burn on the periphery of what’s being called the Old Sechelt Mine fire – a smaller blaze whose proximity to town has elevated it to one of B.C.’s highest priority wildfires. Creating a clean control line consumes fuel in the fire’s path, suppressing it.

It is the fire that claimed the life of John Phare, a logger of more than 40 years, who was much loved in the community. The 60-year-old, who was contracted to cut down trees near the fire, died last weekend when he was struck by a falling tree. Mr. Phare was to marry his fiancée soon; his daughter weds on Saturday.

“He was going to walk her down the aisle, but now her brother’s going to walk her down,” Mr. Phare’s brother, Lonnie, said on Friday. “It was the wrong timing for everything.”

More than 2,300 workers are handling B.C.’s wildfires, including 1,700 firefighters deployed throughout the province.

The tragic death – during an early wildfire season made more challenging by exceptionally dry conditions – is a reminder of the people who face tremendous risks to battle the flames and protect the communities they serve.

In a staging area south of the Old Sechelt Mine fire, Erik Hanson briefs about 20 firefighters who just arrived from Ontario. Surrounded by supplies – coiled fire hoses, jerry cans and boxes of drinking water – Mr. Hanson, a supervisor with the Burns Lake Unit, tells of the controlled burns under way

Burns Lake Unit supervisor Erik Hanson briefs fire crews from Ontario at the Sechelt forest fire on July 9.

They will tour the sites, navigating bumpy, winding roads in dust-covered pick-up trucks.

“Three minutes until we head out,” Mr. Hanson says. “If you need water for the next few days, now’s the time to grab it.”

At major fires requiring a large number of personnel, accommodations consist of tents at campsites, with kitchen and washing trailers. While summer heatwaves can make southern and coastal B.C. deployments uncomfortable, firefighting in the north can mean relentless swarms of buzzing, biting insects.

'For our job, a lot of times, we don’t know whether it’s a 100-metre sprint or a marathon. This summer, I’m starting to think I’m planning for a marathon.'
Erik Hanson, supervisor, Burns Lake Unit

Crew members work 14 consecutive days, then take two or three days off. Duty days of 13 or 14 hours are typical, although some can stretch to 18. Fatigue management is particularly important this year, as the early start to the wildfire season has made the duration of duty unpredictable.

“Problems are easier when we’ve got lots of pep in our step,” Mr. Hanson said. “As a long summer drags on, those human factors start creeping in.

“For our job, a lot of times, we don’t know whether it’s a 100-metre sprint or a marathon. This summer, I’m starting to think I’m planning for a marathon. But you never know when those times are that you’re going to have to pick up the pace, or slow down.”

Fire crews keep a controlled burn in check at the Sechelt forest fire.

They are not without support. In Sechelt, a community of about 9,500, residents have put on hot breakfasts and dinners for fire crews all week at a community hall, serving dishes such as eggs Benedict, crab and shepherd’s pie. Donations include baked goods, gift cards for grocery stores, socks and toiletries. One woman has volunteered to do firefighters’ laundry.

“Anything you can think of, we’ve got it,” lead organizer Selina August said.

Fire personnel speak warmly – and often – of the community support.

“People come up to us and tell us how appreciative they are of the work that we’re doing,” said William Grimm, a young tree faller and crew leader with the Burns Lake Unit.

On this day, Mr. Grimm is tasked with mop-up duties: extinguishing the smouldering material from an earlier controlled burn using water piped from a nearby lake. It is a boring but crucial job. Dirt covers his face and his matted hair is tucked under an orange hard hat. “[They bring] food, letters, cookies and stuff,” he continued. “For me, I’ve never felt that kind of community presence before. Typically, I work more removed from where communities are. To really feel that support is incredible.”

Andy Low, a safety officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, said he and his colleagues are humbled by the compliments they receive from members of the public at gas stations, restaurants and coffee shops.

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Video: Watch as firefighters contain a coastal wildfire in B.C.

“I had someone offer to buy my coffee this morning and I was a little embarrassed,” Mr. Low said. “I made up an excuse that I was on the command team and not actually one of the crews doing the really hard work. Although the sentiment is hugely appreciated, it isn’t expected nor required. This is simply our job that we get paid to do for British Columbians.”

The accidental death of Mr. Phare, the tree faller, has also amplified the sense of camaraderie tht is already apparent among loggers and firefighters. Even those who had never met him admit to being shaken.

Mr. Hanson, who was initially dispatched to Sechelt as a critical-incident stress-management team member after Mr. Phare was killed, helped convene a session at a nearby school for people to talk about it. “Leaving the session, most of the people came and said, ‘I feel better than I did [before],’” Mr. Hanson said. “I think the message there, for me, is that we work as a team – a joint collective and a family.”

As of Friday, B.C. had 212 active wildfires and it has had 979 wildfires so far this season – almost double last year’s activity. Wildfires have triggered eight states of local emergency, and 10 evacuation alerts and orders are currently in effect.

Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer at the B.C. Wildfire Service, noted on Friday that while the weather forecast is for cooler temperatures and occasional showers – a temporary reprieve – it could also mean unpredictable winds and lightning.

“We’ve already had lightning-caused fires today, mainly in southern B.C.,” Mr. Skrepnek said.

The cost so far this year has just surpassed $100-million. In comparison, the total cost in 2014 was $298-million; 2013, $122-million; and 2012, $134-million.

A controlled burn is set by B.C. Wildfire Service to try and contain and control the Sechelt forest fire.

By the numbers

An intense hot and dry spell has hit the province early this summer and doubled the average number of fires reported by this point in the season.

Millions of people in Metro Vancouver have endured the haziest July in decades thanks to wildfires in parts of the South Coast, but the 979 fires reported as of Friday afternoon (212 are still burning) have affected regions across the province, said Mr. Skrepnek.

Many fires are too remote to threaten communities or structures, so firefighters will just monitor their growth, which Mr. Skrepnek called a “modified response.”

Firefighters create a fuel-free perimeter around more threatening blazes by igniting areas outside the wildfire, an approach called “backburning.”

The wildfire service also creates such lines by dropping the fire retardant Phos-Chek from 12 planes and attacks fires with four water-skimming planes that can carry more than 3,000 litres. The province recently signed a $450,000 contract to haul the Mars water bomber out of retirement for a month.

The province has more than 1,000 firefighters, and 700 more have been contracted through other companies, Mr. Skrepnek said.

- Mike Hager