The Saratoga Sun -

A flip in Saskatchewan

 


The wildland fire community has functioned on a somewhat world-wide basis for a long time. As the fire situation worsened in the Canadian provinces a few weeks ago, official help was requested from the US, Australia, and New Zealand. I was one of the Forest Service employees asked to support the effort in Saskatchewan. I flew from Denver to Saskatoon, and then, along with about 20 other American personnel, was taken by bus to Prince Albert near the center of the Province. After a briefing on their general fire techniques and strategies, we were sent in different directions – I picked Buffalo Narrows, a small, remote town in the NW third of Sask., along the Alberta border and just south of the Northwest Territories.

The terrain in that part of Sask. is FLAT with thousands of lakes, spongy muskeg, and dense forests of jack pine and black spruce. Stands of aspen and willow provide food for a thriving beaver population, judging by the number of dams and lodges. Think northern Minnesota without any people, or Alaska. The few villages in the area depend on outfitter/guiding and commercial fishing from the huge lakes to generate revenue. Even with a road, the cost of everything is high and most incomes are quite low. Dogs outnumber people; fortunately, both were very friendly.

The local population is mostly Cree and Dene Indian; the descendants of the latter, interestingly, traveled south thousands of years ago to become Navajo and Apache. Unlike large US fire camps, each town “camp” of firefighters was mostly local and fed by native cooks who dished out fabulous food from tiny kitchens. I became especially fond of bannock, a soft, hot bread served either fried or baked, and always with jam. Like almost everything else, the bannock was made from scratch.

My Own Heli

When we arrived in Saskatchewan, the map of active fires throughout the Province was impressive – HUGE fires everywhere, many of which had or where about to merge together. “Suppression” was mostly point protection of valuables: cabins, towns, the only power line that runs hundreds of miles from the south to the north, etc. Bulldozers were used to create control lines around some portions of some fires; crews, flown in by helicopter because the closest road might be dozens of miles away, patrolled for hotspots. As a Division Supervisor (Mack Fire, >100,000 acres), I was also assigned my own helicopter! – a Bell 204 Long Ranger. A typical morning soon consisted of driving from the community college dorm where we were housed to the Incident Command Post, then flying about 45 minutes to the La Loche Fire Base to brief my crews and heavy equipment operators. What a cool commute!

If I hadn’t done so on the way in, I would then take an aerial recon of the Division to finalize the day’s assignments, returning to La Loche so “my” helicopter and another could ferry the crews and other personnel to their starting points. If my timing was perfect, I arrived back at the fire base/camp just in time for bannock and tea! Throughout the day, there were more flights to find hotspots and to coordinate deliveries, such as diesel to the dozers or backhaul of empty barrels. Periodically, the pilot and I would land at the wee village of Bear Creek for refueling instead – had to try their bannock too, of course! We also got quite good at “refueling” just as hot lunch was served! Inevitably, dogs of all kinds, varying levels of ownership, and uncertain amount of regular feeding would appear. Being somewhat sensitive to their needs (ok, I’m a “softie”), I soon had at least a half-dozen pooches trailing me in every camp.

On Day 8 (or so), I left my heli so he could use his aerial bucket to support crews putting out hotspots in isolated patches of the Division. I hopped on an ATV to inspect the dozer line. It took every bit of experience and luck to avoid the machine-sucking goo that blends with more stable sandy soils. Frequent rain (the most precipitation I’ve ever experienced on a fire) made the tracked landscape ever squishier. I only got the ATV really, really stuck once – up to the top of its tires in the space of a few milliseconds; it took a water tender to winch me out. As they build fireline, the dozer operators also develop helipads into which they or the crews can later be plucked from or deposited by helicopter. At other times, the helicopter pilot and I would just find a flat-ish area where he could set briefly, rotors spinning, while a crew hopped-out to tackle and treat a larger spot fire. Some of these were, invariably, on the edges of swamps… which resulted in more than one firefighter sinking into the muck to his knees. Sorry guys. Seems sorta funny to worry about drowning on a forest fire, eh?

Guards, Flips,

and Bulldogs

At my first briefing for the Mack Fire, the Incident Commander said “we’ve been putting dozens of Fire Guards out there.” I was surprised – personnel shortages were a main reason we had come from the US. Turns out, the Canadian term “Fire Guard” actually means ‘fire line,’ built by bulldozers. It was sometimes used interchangeably with “Cat Guard.” At any rate, it didn’t involve any cats or guards.

Another new phrase for me was “flip,” as when the heli pilot would ask “are you ready for a flip?” He meant “take a flight – what I might normally call a “spin” around the fire.” And a “recon,” in our language, is a “recky” there. So, several times a day, I took a recky flip.

Getting into the helicopter one afternoon, the pilot says “sure is hard keeping all these bulldogs out.” While I readily admit I had become known by the local dogs as a source of bannock/other scraps, I always made sure they didn’t follow me onto the helipad. I glanced around – no dogs. “Bulldogs,” repeated the pilot, pointing to the interior bubble of the aircraft. Ah, horse flies! And yes, they were HUGE, about the size and temperament of a pit-bull. Ouch!

Lessons Learned

By the time I left 2 weeks later, most of the fires in that part of the Province were mostly out. The change in fire behavior was due, in large part, to a profound change in the weather, with frequent rain and cooler, more seasonal temperatures. One of the best things about working for another agency in another country was noticing all the differences…and not just in naming stuff, but in the policies, techniques, and tactics. And while we offered suggestions when asked, I think all of us from the US have brought back ideas that might work here.

We left the bulldogs in Canada.

 

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