The voice of provincial Fire Information Officer (FIO) Ryan Turcot has become a familiar one to many British Columbians, especially over the last two years, as he provides updates on the province’s fire situation.
Turcot—who grew up in Ashcroft and graduated from Ashcroft Secondary School in 2011—has been working as an FIO since graduating from Thompson Rivers University in 2015 with a degree in journalism. The Journal remembers hearing him give the morning announcements at the high school, and discussing his plans to go into journalism.
“My interest in journalism started during my senior years in high school,” says Turcot. “I enjoyed writing, and looked at job markets for people who liked to write. At TRU I taught myself graphic design, and realized that I was also interested in business. I looked at communications as a bridge between writing and business, and a way to use my writing skills to communicate with others.”
He says that it was at a TRU career preparation class that he first met Chief Fire Information Officer Kevin Skrepnek, who explained what an FIO does. “That really piqued my interest. I applied for a position in my third year of university and didn’t even get an interview.”
Undaunted, Turcot took a full-time four-month co-op job with Parks Canada to build up his experience. “I worked out of their equivalent of a marketing department, doing event planning and a bit of communication. In my fourth year of university I had four part-time jobs, all with communication elements. And I was the science/tech editor of The Omega [TRU’s student newspaper].”
In the spring of 2015, as he was getting ready to graduate, Turcot saw a job posting for an FIO and applied again. “The job offer was extended to me just before I graduated. I wrote my final exam in the morning, went home and had a quick lunch, and started work [as an FIO] that afternoon.”
He had learned at TRU how the media and communications industries worked, and says that his first month or so was spent getting up to speed about what he’d be talking to people about as a fire expert, and learning who the people in the organization were and who did what.
“It’s a great team of people, and they were eager to help me understand how things worked. People really supported me and helped me grow into this role.”
Turcot works out of the provincial wildfire information centre, where he speaks to the overall fire situation throughout the province. He explains that fire information officers at the six regional fire centres are able to speak at a more nuanced level about fires in their region, and that major fires will have an incident management team that gets to know the area and can give very detailed answers.
He says that every fire season plays out differently. “In 2015 we were very busy with coastal fires, and in 2016 the spring was very busy and then it was relatively quiet.
“2017 was a benchmark fire season. It was absolutely unprecedented. There’s not much you can do beforehand to prepare for something like that. Anyone who works here will say the same thing: that they’ll remember it for a long time.”
Between July 6 and 8, 2017, there were 200 new fires in the province. “And it wasn’t just that; it was the conditions. There were a lot of indices. The fires took place in very volatile areas.
“By July 7 it was pretty clear that 2017 was not just another fire season. By mid- to late-afternoon that day we knew what we were facing.”
Turcot acknowledges that it was a challenging fire season for him. “But you learn a lot, and grow a lot, with these high pressure situations. And being from an area where these major fires happened made it more real.
“The Elephant Hill wildfire started near the spot where I grew up and affected a lot of people who I know. That’s true of many who work here, and it really puts the event into perspective. It’s all the more reason for me to really make sure I’m empathetic and remember who my audience is.”
Giving out correct information is a major part of Turcot’s job, and he notes that misinformation is something that will always have to be dealt with in stressful emergency situations. “People will be panicked, and they’ll try to get information from wherever they can. Rumours can spread a lot quicker now. The media landscape has changed in that regard.
“Our emphasis is on facts, and we have to keep pace. The BC Wildfire Service provides accurate, timely information to cut through the rumours that spread.”
This fire season saw far more precipitation in June than 2017 did, and Turcot says that’s very influential when it comes to how a fire season plays out. “June tells you how dry the forest floor will be in July and August. We’re seeing an uptick now in lightning-caused fires. There were 132 new ones on July 31, and there have already been 93 new ones today [August 1], and it’s only 2:30 p.m.”
Turcot says that this year’s fires are below average, “but we still have the whole month of August to go. Just over 72,000 hectares have burned so far this year, compared to 465,000 hectares this time last year.”
The job can be stressful, but Turcot enjoys it. “It’s rewarding to know I can do something really helpful. People need the information we give out. I’ve always known I wanted a job in communications, and I’m happy where I’m at right now. When the time comes to contribute my skills and advance to a higher level I’ll be ready, but I’m in no rush to leave what I’m doing now.
“I come to work every day and I’m grateful, and in awe of the people I get to work with. They’re dedicated, hard-working, and ready to give 110 per cent. And I have so much respect for firefighters and the people on the ground. I’m glad I can contribute using the skill set I have.”