Wildfire fighters back to the books after record summer

Owen Powers/Submitted

You could call Owen Powers and Kyle Gillich heroes, but to them, fighting fires during the summer is simply their job. To them, firefighting is a mixture of a love of the outdoors, a sense of exhilaration and a duty to the people of B.C.

Both Powers and Gillich are in their second year of the Natural Resource Sciences program at TRU, and both of them served in initial attack crews this past summer.

Stationed in the Cariboo, Powers experienced what he called his “first full season” this year. Last year, during his Grade 12 year in Williams Lake, Powers had the opportunity to join the JR Initial Attack program. Provided by a select few school districts in the province, the program allows Grade 12 students to train in forest firefighting techniques and gives access to future employment opportunities.

“If you can make it through the program, once you graduate from high school, you’ll get a job and you’ll start July 1,” Powers said.

Unlike Powers, Gillich is a firefighting veteran. He’s fought fires in B.C. for the past eleven seasons, and in 2013 worked his way up to the position of crew leader. Though Gillich started fighting fires in 2007, he had been fascinated by the prospect of fighting fires since 2003.

Kyle Gillich inspects a burnt out tree. (Submitted)

During the particularly bad fire season of 2003, Gillich said his family was evacuated from their home in Naramata, a town just north of Penticton. Gillich applied to a ministry crew but was turned away because he was too young.

“The next summer I saw an initial attack crew attack a fire,” Gillich said. “They landed in a helicopter, they got out and scrambled up this hill. Then the smoke died like in an hour, and I thought, ‘I really want to do that when I graduate.’ So I kept applying.”

Powers was stationed in the Cariboo this season and Gillich was stationed in the East Kootenays. Despite this, both of them recount similar experiences from their time in initial attack crews.

“In initial attack we are always the first responders,” Powers said. “So when there is a report of a fire somewhere we have to go find it. If there is a really good phone report and it is called in accurately, we can find it very quickly.”

While initial attack crews are often on standby, Gillich said the situation can change at a moment’s notice. Initial attack crews often operate in small teams and are flown in by helicopter for a rapid response. As a result, they often found themselves participating in the heaviest firefighting.

Owen Powers

During a two-week deployment to Williams Lake, Gillich was responsible for seven fires. Having to pull his crew off the fires and regroup to stop fires combining and heading towards the city, Gillich recounted what he was thinking at the time.

“It was very eerie – a very surreal experience,” he said. “The sky was orange and there was smoke everywhere. Helicopters, their ability to fly was pretty intermittent because of the smoke and the darkness. It was well before sunset but the smoke made it look dark.”

While both Gillich and Powers describe firefighting as hard and stressful work, both of them said the job is very rewarding. On top of that, they believe it has helped them in their university careers.

“The chaos of a new fire – there is nothing more stressful than the initial phases of a fire,” Gillich said. “If you can handle that, you can handle anything in life. It’s just dealing with priorities.”

While the job is tough, it’s something Powers and Gillich recommend to those interested.

“If anyone is ever interested in it, I’d recommend trying firefighting. It’s a great job,” Powers said. “Very fun, hard work, but you can see some amazing things and meet some amazing friends.”