When Dee Bartens returned to her cabin on Green Lake this past spring – one of many that were under evacuation order last summer – she found a “beautiful note.”
Scribbled on a small piece of cardboard was “Aussie firefighters were here. Hope your cabin is safe. Delta Crew C155. Toolie.”
A team of 20 firefighters had used Bartens’ cabin for refuge, to take their breaks and refuel on food and water, while they fought the Elephant Hill blaze.
“We were just so touched by that,” says Bartens, a resident of Langley. “I mean, we knew they had been there. Obviously, when we got there, there were remnants of the fact somebody had been there, but I just thought, ‘Wow.’”
Shortly after finding the note, Bartens set out on a mission to get in touch with the crew that had protected the properties around Green Lake (thankfully, no homes were lost).
“I thought it would be really nice to try and find them to at least say thank you,” she tells KamloopsMatters. “Lots of people thanked the local firefighters, but I don’t remember ever hearing anything directed specifically to the Australian firefighters.”
Bartens immediately put a call out on social media to try and track down the mysterious author. In less than three weeks, she made contact with Garry Cooper, the leader of Delta Crew C155. (It was firefighter Andrew Toole who penned the note.)
“I wrote a lovely thank you letter to them and sent it off to Garry. I told them what I’d really like to do is frame (the note) and have that go up in the cabin.”
To make the frame that much more special, Cooper said he would mail her the Australian firefighter’s badge.
“I thought that was beautiful,” says Bartens. “Just sweet people.”
A first time for everything
Last year’s wildfire season marked the first time Australia had ever sent over a contingent of firefighters to Canada. The country had deployed incident management teams in the past, but never ground crews.
“We got the call … within three or four days, we were all on a plane and on our way to Canada,” recalls Cooper, who had never been to B.C. up until that point.
Cooper’s team, made up of 20 firefighters, arrived Aug. 10. After landing in Vancouver, they flew up to Prince George to collect their vehicles and drove down to base camp in Clinton.
Their entire deployment, about five-and-a-half weeks, was spent battling Elephant Hill. They worked two weeks straight, had a few days off, and worked another two weeks. The group helped with mop-up efforts around Loon Lake in the first half of the deployment and spent the latter half around Green Lake and Jim Lake.
“We really had to manage fatigue and time frames, working those 14-day shifts,” he says. “The shifts were different than what we do out here. Normally, we’re not allowed to do more than 12 hours in one shift.”
Being in “pine forest country” was also something many of the Aussies weren’t used to.
“We never experienced fires of that magnitude, around hundreds of thousands of hectares. We deal with fires in the thousands of hectares.”
But everyone on the team had a “really good understanding” of what it took to look after themselves and each other.
“We made it quite clear we had to take our regular breaks. We had to make sure we had a good stop and rest break for lunch, and mainly keeping health up with good hydration,” says Cooper. “Obviously, being away from home and families, we had to sort of keep that in mind as well.”
“The way we explained it to our guys is it’s not a sprint race, it’s a marathon. Just gotta pace yourself."
Bartens’ cabin was one of those rest stops.
Cooper remembers the property as being “a beautiful bit of paradise,” a place he and his comrades could relax in for a moment, and enjoy the view.
As a small token of appreciation, some firefighters left notes behind.
“What we were thinking was, obviously these people who own these cabins, they don’t know whether they’re safe or not. At the end of the day, we knew we’d done our best to save them, so we thought we’d leave a note just to say that we were here to help.”
(At another cabin, the Aussies left a note in a guestbook that was hanging on the wall.)
For Cooper, the biggest highlight of the deployment was knowing his crew had stopped the fire from advancing on Green Lake.
“Our motto is to protect life and property – and that’s the same motto we carried to Canada,” he says.
It didn’t come without some sacrifices, though. He left behind his family, including three children between the ages of 12 and 17.
“They’re very supportive and they know that’s my job,” the 46-year-old says, noting he’d Skype with them at any chance he got.
Should B.C. request Australia’s help again, Cooper is confident many of his colleagues would respond to the call.
“The guys said it was a long time to be away from their families and a long time away to be away from home, but the fact that they made a difference while they were there is what entices them to say, ‘Well yeah, if we got called again, I’d think we’d go back.”
One Year After the Fires is a feature KamloopsMatters will be running this summer. Our goal is to share stories of the people who've had to live with the aftermath of B.C.'s worst fire season on record, as well as stories from the frontline.