B.C.’s 2021 wildfire season burned an area of over 8,700 square kilometres, the third highest on record. It wasn’t the worst season, but for some reason it felt like it. Smoke hobbled the COVID starved traveller in BC, many municipalities were placed on evacuation notice, and over 90% of the town of Lytton was destroyed by fire. I happened to be driving through Lytton two days before it burned, and the external thermometer on my vehicle read 48’C. The thought of exiting my air-conditioned vehicle seemed silly, and yet, there were almost 3000 firefighters and other personnel fighting fires on that day. Combine long days, incredible heat, smoky conditions, and some of the most arduous conditions imaginable in some of the most remote locations in BC…and you have another day on the fireline.
It’s been 20 years since I was on the fireline. I was involved with the BC Wildfire Service for 8 years, 6 years on the ground with the rappel crews based in Salmon Arm, and 2 years as a senior instructor with the new-recruit training boot camp. During my time in the field and in the classroom, I had the pleasure of working with and teaching an incredible group of people, many who I stay in close contact with today. For those who have retired and hung up the Nomex coveralls, the legacy of summers on the line runs deeper than memories of swinging a Pulaski (part axe, part pick). Our time with the BC Wildfire Service left a lasting impact on the way we work with people, manage crises in the office, and learn and develop as professionals.
Wild land fire fighters in BC most often work in either three person Initial Attack Crews or on larger 20 person Unit Crews, and they rarely work alone. Teamwork is drilled into new recruits from day one, and the incredibly tough training and hazardous work environment leads to a deep bond forming between fire fighters. This same esprit de corps is seen in other professionals like policing, healthcare, and municipal fire fighters. Whether it is checking over your crewmate’s rappel harness before they slide down a 100M rope from a hovering helicopter or evacuating your crew from an aggressive fire, you learn to trust others with your life. This leads to a deep understanding of what it truly means to work as a team, which is a broadly applied and highly sought transferable skill.
Perspective: Is it on fire?
People who have been close to a raging forest fire will tell you that it sounds jet engine. The heat, the pull of the wind, and the incredible sound – all assault the senses. When a fire takes off, there is not much you can do besides get out of the way and marvel at the power. How often do we have crises in the office of the same magnitude? For most of us, not often. Keeping things in perspective and remaining calm is an important take away…when a crises arises, while it may not feel like you have time to formulate a logical, data informed plan, chances are there actually is time to take as step back before you act. Is it on fire? Likely not.
A Commitment to Learning, Development and Training
Wildland fire fighting is a very competitive program; getting hired means passing a rigorous fitness test and obtaining a passing grade on a number of in-class and practical courses relating not only to fire behaviour and safety, but also to the tools used to action fires. Courses and training in helicopter hover exit/rappel, chainsaw safety, hand-tool use and water delivery systems expose new recruits to broad range of topics most have never been exposed to.
Being able to learn new skills, and demonstrate them properly in front of your peers is an essential part of making it through probation period. The learning doesn’t stop after probation is over. BC Wildfire’s commitment to continued training and developing of its people at all levels has resulted in a world class curriculum of courses that other countries seek us out for. There is a culture of learning that runs deep in the organization, and is demonstrated by the daily training that occurs to keep the skills and tools sharp, and safe. The pandemic has illustrated the need for us to be flexible and adaptable, and to be able to learn new ways of doing things, something that happens on the fireline everyday as weather patterns and thus fire behaviour changes.
My time fighting fires on the steep slopes of remote parts of BC had a profound impact on me as a professional, arguable more so than any other life, work, or academic experience. While not many will not have this opportunity, many others will have the chance to work in non-traditional roles and build marketable skills and talents. As HR professionals we need to look past the perception that these kinds of roles are simply a way to make some summer money by doing manual labour. When interviewing potential candidates, the competencies you’ll likely see in a wildland firefighter are a unwavering commitment to team, a welcomed calmness during crises, and a comfortableness with learning – qualities we can all use in the office.
Published in PeopleTalk Winter 2021