Skip to content

Haze, blaze and workdays: Life as an initial attack firefighter at the Kamloops Fire Centre

Heather Murray
Heather Murray has worked with BC Wildfire Service for the last three seasons. (via BC Wildfire Service)

Throughout September, KamloopsMatters will be profiling a BC Wildfire Service employee at the Kamloops Fire Centre. KFC coordinates the wildfire response across south-central B.C., from Blue River in the north to the U.S. border in the south, and from Bridge River in the west to Monashee Mountains in the east. The fire centre employs around 50 permanent staff and a large number of seasonal support staff. 

The goal of this 10-part feature is to give our readers a better understanding and a bird's-eye view of what happens at the centre, and to put a face to the people who are behind the scenes and on the frontlines.

For the last three years, Heather Murray's summers haven't been spent lounging by the lake for days on end.

She's been in the bush, as part of an initial attack crew, fighting wildfires. 

Initial attack (IA) crews are made up of three firefighters, including the crew leader. They're the first ones to respond to a wildfire after the call comes through dispatch

"I was inspired to join the wildfire service because I did my degree at UBC in natural resource conservation and so, we studied a lot of climate change and climate change-related issues, wildfire being one of them," Murray tells KamloopsMatters. "I was also on a varsity sports team, in rowing. BC Wildfire Service seemed like a good job that combined both my interests in climate change as well as physical activity."

As Murray puts it, no day on IA is the same. 

Heather Murray2Heather Murray on duty. (via BC Wildfire Service)

"We never know where we'll be in five minutes or five days or five weeks," she says with a laugh.

Each IA member is scheduled to work during the hottest part of the day; in other words, when a wildfire is most likely to ignite. 

If it's a busy fire season, she and her team will be on "red alert." 

"Red alert is basically the fastest way to get firefighters out the door. What that means is you're ready at all times... so you're wearing your uniform, your boots... and everything is ready to load into the helicopter. We're in the air within five minutes of being dispatched."

Murray anticipates she was deployed on red alert 15 times during the 2018 wildfire season.

If they're travelling by helicopter (instead of by truck), Murray says one of the first things IA does is look for a water source near the fire, while they're still in the air. 

"We land the helicopter either by a nearby road or if there's a suitable helipad area. And then we'll unload our gear. We'll then hike that gear as close as possible to the fire," explains Murray. "And then we'll look for a water source (for our hoses), that hopefully was already spotted while in the air. But if not, we'll have to look with a GPS."

The water source has to be at least two feet deep, and there needs to be enough of it to sustain the length of time necessary to put out the fire. If there's no nearby lake or river, that's when air support is called in, says Murray. 

Once crews locate a water source, they hike a jerry can and a 45-pound, gas-powered pump to the site. IA then has the task of cutting a trail to and around the fire, which requires chainsawing whatever obstacles (like logs) might be in the way. 

Once the trail has been cleared, firefighters lay down the main hose and build a guard around the fire. Crews need to dig a guard (by hand) in order to prevent a fire from spreading.

Because there are only three of them, IA firefighters will action the fire in sections; IA will be supported by contract firefighters if needed.

They'll attach smaller hoses to the main hose in order to conserve water and to cover more ground.

"Most of the time, we have a very limited water supply. We never want to have water spraying on a fire that’s not efficient or used in a meaningful way," says Murray.

Unsurprisingly, IA work can be physically challenging on the body. 

"If you’ve been on a fire for many days and the food is being flown to you, that’s canned food. You’re eating cold (food)," she says. "It’s trying to maintain a high level of physical output while sustaining yourself with canned food in a compromised environment."

And that's if the helicopter can land; smoky skies may hamper that. 

It's also not easy to make plans in the summer.

"It's a challenge," says Murray. "We can’t always explain the fact that we don’t have a set work schedule. ... We don’t know when to say, 'Oh, I'll see you this time,' because you might be flying out the door. You might not have the time to text them or call them."

Though it may be hard sometimes, working as an initial attack crew member is rewarding, she adds.

"I love the excitement of it. I love working hard."

Editor's note: This the seventh article in the 10-part feature. Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here and part six here.




Comments


Tereza Verenca

About the Author: Tereza Verenca

Tereza Verenca is a multimedia journalist who covers all things Kamloops!
Read more