The fire camp that was set up at Cache Creek Elementary School in early July has now moved—as of August 11—to a location near Big Sky, so that the school can get ready to open again on September 5; but The Journal had an opportunity to visit it on August 8, accompanied by fire information officer Max Birkner.
When I worked as a support staff relief worker for School District No. 74 I spent s fair bit of time on the Cache Creek playing fields as a noon hour supervisor. But now the site has been transformed from the familiar fields I knew into something resembling a military camp.
It is 7:30 p.m. when I arrive, but the thick smoke blanketing the area makes it seem more like twilight. The camp could just be glimpsed from Highway 97, and it isn’t until I cross the highway and start down the driveway that the enormity of it becomes apparent.
In the parking lot and grounds nearest to the school building are enormous trailers for operations, logistics, planning and more, while the playing field—the grass brown and brittle after weeks with no water—plays host to a kitchen, two large portable shower/bathroom units, a portable laundry unit, more than a dozen 20’ by 42’ ranger tents that provide room for a mess and for accommodations, and dozens of smaller tents for fire crews. The playground equipment in the background looks suddenly out of place amidst the seriousness of the camp.
Birkner says that the camp could accommodate up to 300 people, but that there were never that many people there at one time because of crews working different shifts. For most people, the day would start at 5:30 a.m. with breakfast; then crews would get a packed lunch to take with them, and return to a hot meal in the evening. “It’s really good food,” he adds.
Birkner introduces me to Brendan Hutchinson, who is with the BC Wildfire Service and comes from the Bulkley area. He is the south logistics chief, and is in charge of running the Cache Creek camp.
“Logistics is designed to support the fire: helping with the equipment and gear, resources personnel, all the workings of the camp itself: making sure all the firefighters are fed and well-rested and looked after so they can do their job out on the line,” he explains.
Hutchinson says there is an operational briefing meeting each evening, which encapsulates whatever happened that day and gives some forward-thinking about what the next day or days will look like. There will often be a small operational meeting in the morning, to make sure everyone has their objectives down.
He says that each crew member’s day varies, depending on their role and where they are in the fire. “Most people are typically working 12 to 15 hours a day. They’re on for 14 duty days, or long days, and often travel is included in that, so if you’re from a far-reaching part of the province you might travel on day one, work 12, and travel on day 14.
“A reset for us would be three days off clear, or two light-duty days and two days off. On light duty days you might be doing some paperwork, and just work a seven-hour day.”
Teams of night crews are being deployed to monitor fire breaks and make sure the fire does not cross established fire lines.
Next up is Michael Ritchie, who is from Beachworth in the state of Victoria in southwestern Australia, where he is with forest fire management. His role at the camp is division supervisor, and when asked if this is his first time in Canada he laughs and says it his first time overseas.
His role at the fire is organizing crews over a certain patch of area and make sure everyone is working efficiently toward the same objective: controlling the fire as quickly as possible.
He describes it as a learning experience, given the differences between Canadian and Australian vegetation. “The trees are different. We work in gum tree forests, so you have a canopy overtop. Here you have conifer trees that are pointy at the top. The systems and people are very similar, but the language is a little bit different in some instances, in terms of the jargon used on the fire line.
“The big challenge for me is the different vegetation, and how it behaves when it’s on fire.”
This is his first day on the fire, after arriving here on Saturday, August 5 (“We left Sydney on the morning of August 5, and got here on the morning of August 5 two hours earlier,” he laughs). When asked how, as an Australian, he finds himself fighting a fire in western Canada, he replies that firefighters can nominate themselves for overseas assignments.
“You have to meet certain physical requirements and be medically fit, and have certain accreditation and experience. I put my name on the list.
“A fair few people want to do it and are keen. A certain group of people were able to come and very enthusiastic to come.
“It’s a great experience. It really builds networks, and an understanding of what happens here also helps us back at home in terms of our firefighting experience. Seeing how people do things differently allows us to have a look at what we’re doing and pick up new tips and techniques.”
Birkner then introduces Darren Loverin, who is the equipment supervisor for this part of the fire. Loverin is from Smithers, and has been in Cache Creek for a week.
“I find equipment to hire to help fight the fire,” he explains. “I also ensure that the equipment is being productive, and can help the division supervisors when they need help. I also ensure safety; I have safety meetings when we have our ops meetings at night, and try to give safety pointers to people, regarding equipment and working around equipment.
“Tonight I’m going to be talking about parking at [road] junctions when we have low beds [trucks] coming through. People can’t park at the junctions, because the low bed has to make wide turns, and if vehicles are in the way it’s going to take out the vehicles or they can’t make the turn.”
Loverin is overseeing 40 pieces of large equipment, and has to know where they all are. “I take photos of them all, so that if something does burn up I can verify things for insurance purposes.
“I coordinate all the moving of equipment to different locations as it comes up. Sometimes you’re really busy moving equipment.
“And I organize hiring low beds. When I first got here we only had one low bed, so that was a concern. I found low beds and other resources, like skidders and cats. When I meet people I talk to them, and if they own equipment I usually write their names down. It’s good to know.”