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In the line of fire: B.C.'s Wildfire Management Branch director

Despite a near-death experience on the job, Brian Simpson has not considered seeking another career.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Brian Simpson is ready for war – the annual conflict that pits hundreds of firefighters against the inevitable wildfires that will scorch the province this summer.

As director of the 102-year-old B.C. Wildfire Management Branch, Mr. Simpson is in charge of the provincial agency that deals with the 2,000 wildfires that occur on average each year.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Simpson talks about the summer ahead, a life fighting wildfires, and what he was thinking about while aboard a crashing fire-fighting helicopter.

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What kind of forest-fire season are you expecting in B.C. this year?

The early predictions are somewhat of an average season. We find the situation is a lot more unpredictable today, whether that be from climate change or just patterns we are experiencing.

How is climate change affecting the forest-fire situation?

Weather patterns are much more unpredictable. The spikes are higher and the lows are lower. If you look at things like temperature, drought conditions, wind conditions, we're finding now there are periods during our fire seasons that are much higher-risk than we have historically experienced. We're getting to these much higher intensity fires much more quickly than in the past. We need to be prepared much earlier. If you go back 10 years, our crew organization, preseason preparation, never really got cranked up until the middle of April. We are doing that now at the beginning of March.

Are you properly resourced for the season ahead?

There is no single jurisdiction in the world that can have enough resources to meet the peak response periods. That's why we rely so heavily on mutual-aid agreements with other provinces and countries. B.C. is there to help our neighbours when they need it as well. We need to build our capacity here in B.C., and we're working on that.

What has been the average annual cost of dealing with forest fires in B.C. in recent years?

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It highly fluctuates, from a high of 2010 where we spent over $300-million, to the more normal situation where a little over $100-million is spent on direct fire. There's no question the costs are increasing and I expect, given weather patterns, fuel conditions and just the nature of the fire seasons we're having to deal with, that will continue.

How did you get into this line of work?

Probably like a lot of people in our organization, I started when I was a teenager. It seemed like an exciting opportunity. To be real perfectly honest, once I got smoke in my nostrils and kind of figured out what it was all about, I figured out this is what I wanted to do. Some 37 years later, here I am. I essentially grew up as a firefighter.

Do you miss front-line commanding?

Absolutely.There's a purpose and it's physical, rewarding. You are working within a team that has a single focus. It may sound a bit corny, but it's kind of like tackling Mother Nature and being successful.

Were you ever injured?

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Yes. I was involved personally in a helicopter crash back in the early '80s on a fire.

Were they critical injuries?

Yes. We crashed a 214 Bell Helicopter into the coastal timber. Remote location. Extracted by search and rescue. It was just like the movies. Stuck in Buffalo aircraft out of Bella Coola. Dropped into an ambulance and whisked off from the airport to Vancouver General. I am happy to say the four people on board survived.

As you were going down in that helicopter, did you ever think about finding another line of work if you survived?

No. It took about 10 minutes. We knew we were going down because the tail rotor had broken off the helicopter and we were just autorotating, and it was just a matter of time before we ended up in the trees.

What I was thinking about is that my family would figure out my fiancée should be inheriting the money that comes from my insurance.

In your recovery, did you think about finding a more tranquil job?

No. If you find something you have a passion for, you don't really give it up easily.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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