Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Losing Forest to Wildfires

"This is almost a record-breaking season for us. Crews are on their third and fourth deployment already and we're only halfway through. We've had them stay for 18 days [instead of the usual 15]."
"The first two deployments, everybody has got a lot of juice But some of these guys are on their third and fourth deployments, back to back to back, and that's unusual. As we go further into the season, fatigue is a factor."
"In Alberta, we've got an excellent safety record. We just don't put people in that [life-threatening] position. I'm proud of the record we have in Alberta."
Doug Smith, area firefighting commander

"I'd say that [rappelling down from a helicopter into stands of burning timber] sends goosebumps up your arm every time."
"We go through that in every recruit [training] camp. We give them the story of the fallen firefighters. We pay our tributes to them."
Jamie Parker, rappel team member, Calgary
A wildfire rises over a hill in Jasper National Park on July 9, 2015. Edmonton Journal
"The Canadian safety record when it comes to wildland fire suppression is pretty remarkable. I don't believe we'll ever get it down to zero fatalities. One, two, three a year. I hate to say it, that's probably reality."
"We've had very few entrapments. We've had drownings, where firefighters are camped out on a line and they get chased into a lake by the fire. There are vehicle accidents. Normal things."
"We often look for technological fixes, but it still comes back to having good people on the ground -- crew bosses who know what they're doing and keep rookie firefighters out of harm's way. I don't think that's going to change."
Marty Alexander, retired wildland fire behaviour expert, Sherwood Park, Alberta

"There but for the grace of God. Everyone in our planes is a consenting adult and they know what they're getting into. And safety of the operation is paramount. But you still shudder at the thought [fire fighting amphibious water tankers crashing]."
"We have to make sure our crews are properly rested We have spare pilots so guys can get days off to decompress."
Paul Lane, vice-president, Air Spray, aerial firefighting company
A Lockheed Electra, operated by Air Spray, dumps a load of fire retardant. Edmonton Journal

The summer of 2015 has been hot, dry and demanding in most of Western Canada. From mid-week last week 1,422 fires had been reported in the province of Alberta itself alone. The result has been 485,838 hectares of land scorched, much above normal, with five-year averages at mid-summer standing at an average of 905 fires involving 254,527 hectares.

The demand for firefighters' services battling the wildfires has been so intense that longer rotations and extended shifts have resulted on the fire line. Time away from fighting the fires to allow fire fighting personnel to recoup some strength has been cut as well. Firefighters from Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick have responded to the urgent appeal to give aid.

Across Alberta alone roughly 1,500 personnel have been deployed, representing 500 firefighters from the province, with another 280 contract workers, topped off by the imported and emergency personnel. But they've been worked so hard there is always the opportunity for tired firefighters to make errors in judgement; safety is always front of mind, but fatigue and stress can deleteriously impact the best of intentions.

Not just anyone becomes a firefighter. To enter the government training program people must be able to pass rigorous physical and mental fitness tests. The training program itself, depending on particular duties involved, lasts between eight days to a month, with a focus on safety, respecting all the programs. Some jobs carry more risks than others; some jobs carry risks that are different than those encountered on other jobs; it varies.

The rappel teams are comprised of some of the most highly trained firefighters who drop from helicopters into areas that vehicles cannot reach. Their work consists mostly of clearing space to enable larger craft to land and their four- or eight-person Helitack crews to emerge, along with related equipment. The initial firefighting tasks are addressed under the agency of these first crews, fighting new fires, digging fire guards, cleaning out potential fuel sources such as fallen trees, and dousing hot spots with hoses, bags and pumps.

Bulldozers are used to clear the forest floor, scraping down to the mineral level. Other crews come in afterward to perform the mop-up finishing work. On the line, firefighters establish LACES [lookouts, anchor points, communications, escape routes, safety zones] before focusing their attention on  fighting fires, A carefully observed watch protocol for any signs of unsafe conditions is a vital part of the job, entailing a high degree of vigilance.

At the provincial firefighting training centre in Hinton, 19 memorials to fallen wildland firefighters have been erected. One of which memorializes Harro van Bockel, a rappel team member who, along with a fellow crew member was dragged while suspended below a moving helicopter, into a stand of burning timber. Mr. van Bockel died, the other team member survived his serious injuries.

Two fire-suppression-related deaths have occurred this season in Canada. When tree-faller John Joe Phare, 60, was struck by a tree in British Columbia he became the first fatality. Pilot William Hilts, 38, died near Cold Lake in the crash of a Fire Boss amphibious water tanker in May, owned by Conair Aerial Firefighting. A second Conair Fire Boss sank in British Columbia in early July, with the pilot surviving the  episode.

Air Spray scouts for smoke in their observation aircraft and drops fire retardant from the tanks of the Lockheed Electras under contract to the government of Alberta. Most pilots have already logged twice as many hours as is considered normal for this time of year. "This year, we're looking at the issue of running our equipment extremely hard because we're fighting that much fire. That's why we're buying more aircraft and gearing up.

"This problem isn't going to be going away this year or next", explains vice-president of Air Spray, Paul Lane. "There is a long-term upward trend and we'll need more equipment to meet demand."

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