B.C. Wildfire Service replaces student staff as firefight continues

A Canadair CL-415 from Quebec lands at the Kamloops Airport on Sept. 2. Quebec is just one of many places outside B.C. where firefighters are coming from to join the fight against one of B.C.’s worst wildfire seasons ever. Sean Brady/The Omega

The B.C. Wildfire Service has said that it would lose 30 to 40 per cent of its workforce as students return to school. Chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said that losing such a high number of staff each year is just a reality.

“All of our firefighters are seasonal, and a big portion of them are folks who return to school. A lot of our dispatchers are post-secondary students as well,” Skrepnek said last month.

Due to the seasonal nature of firefighting, the loss of workers in the B.C. Wildfire Service is a yearly happening, with many firefighters finishing their contracts at the end of August. Despite this, the wildfire service makes sure to maintain a standing force of firefighters large enough to keep fighting fires well into September.

“A lot of our firefighters would have been done in late August, but there are ways we can offset this decrease though,” said fire information officer Ryan Turcot.

“We are bringing in additional assistance from the forest industry and from other provinces, the Canadian Armed Forces, local fire departments and even other countries if need be,” Turcot said. “We do whatever we need to do to maintain the capacity required to fight these fires moving into September as this is a fire season that will go on for a while yet.”

As of Sept. 11, there are still 3,000 firefighters and other personnel fighting 168 fires throughout the province. Of those personnel, 1,400 are contractors, while 261 are from out of province.

Compared to previous years, Turcot stated that number of firefighters in active service is quite large for this far into the season.

Yet this is likely due to the this year’s historic fire season. Since April 1 of this year, 1,225 wildfires in BC have burned approximately 1,169,126 hectares. With 4,302 evacuees still unable to return home, the end of this fire season won’t be any time soon.

“With some of these larger wildfires that are burning, they could be burning until snow hits the ground,” Turcot said. “A lot of it depends on weather forecasts and how weather plays out over the next month or two.”

If need be, Turcot said that some firefighters may have their contracts extended, if they can make such a commitment. Though it isn’t an option for all firefighters to keep working past their contracts end date, this season has provided many opportunities for continued work, with many crews opting to extend their contracts by a few months, Turcot said.
While Turcot described this season as one of the B.C. Wildfire Service’s most challenging yet, he also said that it has provided a great learning experience for both firefighters and information units.

“This has been one of the most historic fire seasons on record, and there has been a lot of lessons learned that will come out of this season,” Turcot said.