Wildfire Welcomes Help From The North
Incident: Incendiary Creek Wildfire
August 2013 will be remembered as a time of large wildfires across the western United States. The 1,100 acre Incendiary Creek fire is burning in the steep, rugged Lolo Creek canyon in north-central Idaho. Access to the fire area is extremely difficult, as the canyon is narrow, full of heavy fuels, and few safety zones and escape routes. Too dangerous for any but the most seasoned and professional firefighting crews; only the “Hotshot” [Type 1] crews have been assigned fire suppression tasks deep down in the canyon. The “Shot” crews are an essential tool in the management of this fire, but more help was needed and available resources across the U.S. were scarce.
Enter the Canadians. On August 23, two twenty-person “Unit Crews” from British Columbia, the Telkwa Rangers and the Heat Seekers, traveled up to 1200 miles to arrive at the Incendiary Creek fire. The next morning, although eager to get out on the fireline after their long drive, they first were briefed by the local agency and then they set out to work on a steep part of the fire with challenging access where dozers had just opened up old roads.
The British Columbian Unit Crews are comparable to American Type 1 crews. As with all Type 1 crews, British Columbia’s Telkwa Rangers Unit Crew under Dan Dykens enjoy challenges; the more challenging the assignment, the better. Professional wildfire suppression crews are highly motivated and take a great deal of pride in a job well done. Due to the seasonal nature of firefighting, crews like this tend to consist of a high percentage of college students. According to Aaron Williams, squad boss, these firefighters tend to be “some of the best educated blue-collar workers.” A better description came from Division Supervisor Dave Crosser, who said “The Rangers’ professionalism, pride of workmanship and outstanding attitude – you couldn’t ask for more than that in a crew.”
The British Columbian firefighters seamlessly joined American firefighters as wildfire training, skills, and suppression tactics are identical.
However, minor differences do exist:
Perhaps most obvious is the color of the fire retardant nomex clothing. American firefighters wear the familiar yellow shirts and green pants, while firefighters from British Columbia wear red nomex shirts and dark blue pants.
American Type 1 crews travel in two large personnel carriers, commonly known as “crew buggies,” followed by a chase truck with all of their equipment. The equivalent B.C. Unit Crews travel in five heavy duty crew-cab pickups, each with four people. Each vehicle hauls a different type of equipment: one hauls chain saws and tools, one hauls fuel, another hauls hoses and pumps, another hauls personal packs, food and camping gear, while the final vehicle is carrying medical equipment.
Some terminology differs but communications are easily understood. American crews build “hand lines” or “fire lines,” for instance, while B.C. Unit Crews build “hand guards” or “fire guards.”
Wildfire management tactics and management systems are relatively homogenous within the U.S. and also between the U.S. and British Columbia, but the same can’t be said when comparing British Columbia to other Canadian provinces. Each province has unique topography which affects fire suppression strategies and each province has adapted to their situation appropriately. Ontario, for instance, has large remote areas, often wet and inaccessible by anything but helicopters. They commonly use small crews of four or five firefighters, fly them into isolated fires with helicopters, and leave them there with cooking equipment and several days’ worth of food. In British Columbia, on the other hand, conditions are widely diverse, ranging from dry forest to rain forest to spruce swamps.
When British Columbia’s Telkwa Rangers unit crew was asked to specify what they liked most about coming to the U.S. on a fire crew, the most oft-repeated comment concerned fire camp. A fire camp is designed to support all the functions necessary to manage a fire: command, planning, operations, logistics and finance, but it also supports the requirements of the firefighters, such as food, tools, medical needs and showers. What the Rangers most appreciated was the efficiency of the camp and how well it supports the firefighter. Meals are served quickly and efficiently and the food is good. Tools and supplies are provided as requested, without question. Medical facilities provide care for anything from sunburn and blisters to more serious problems. The supply tent and showers are open early in the morning and late in the evening, convenient times for fire crews working long days.
American fire managers are able to request Canadian assistance for an Idaho fire because of the Northwest Wildland Fire Protection Agreement, also known as the Northwest Compact. The Northwest Compact is an agreement between the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Montana and the Provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories, which allows any of these partners to assist each other when the need arises. In all, three Canadian crews were dispatched to the Incendiary Creek fire: the Telkwa Rangers, the Heat Seekers, and the Yukon Fire Management Crew. Deputy Incident Commander Allen Chrisman says, “From a management perspective, the ability to bring in crews from Canada is incredible!”
Canadians came to our aid when requested, and we would be happy to work with them again in the future. Incident Commander Jim Grant expressed his appreciation: “We are grateful for their help and look forward to the day that we can repay the favor.”