By Tyler Marr
Owen Price has fought wildfires for 30 years and said the smoke conditions he witnessed in wildfire-stricken British Columbia is something he has never experienced in his career.
He was one of 31 logistics operators and firefighters from Saskatchewan who have returned home after spending two weeks speckled across B.C. assisting in various wildfire operations.
Crews from across Canada — including the military — and around the world have descended on that province, which remains under a state of emergency, as over 550 wildfires rage on, forcing nearly 20,000 people under evacuation alerts and orders.
“It is quite something to be part of,” the agency representative for the group told media after their plane landed in Prince Albert Tuesday afternoon.
The crews from Saskatchewan were stationed across the province, from as far south as Kamloops to northern communities like Prince George and Telegraph Lake. Twenty firefighters worked on the largest blaze in B.C., which is burning near Fraser Lake. Price said when they arrived, the fire measured at 6,000 hectares, but was burning an 80,000-hectare area when they left.
“B.C. has a very long fire season ahead of them. Conditions look like they are not going to get any type of relief in the near future,” Price said.
Frontline teams offered their support through fire suppression and burn out operations, while support personal performed logistics functions like delivering food and equipment.
Among those on the front line was Hudsons Bay based, Josh Lees. The two-year initial attack crew member spent time building guard lines and conducting burns.
“It is unfortunate to see but it is nice to head over there and lend a helping hand when we can,” he said.
Lees worked in British Columbia last year and said despite the terrible conditions and situation, he found great camaraderie.
“We are all from different bases so you don’t really know. You might know two or three guys, but at the end, you are good friends with everyone,” he said. “There are some long lasting friendships that get made on the line.”
Prince Albert based Lee-Ann Mctaggart worked as a single resource logistics member in Telegraph Lake, just a few hundred kilometres from the Yukon border. She spent her days hauling fuel and preparing camps under different circumstances than most, as it would drop down to -1 Celsius at night.
“It was wonderful to see a whole dynamic of people working together helping out B.C.,” she said. “I actually had a really good time…. I have met people from New Zealand, the Yukon, Australia and B.C.”
Steve Roberts with Wildfire Management was on site to welcome back the crew. He said 38 firefighters and 18 overhead staff from Saskatchewan will remain in B.C. for at least another week and a half. The province also has two air groups and a skimmer team assisting in Montana and an air tanker team in Oregon.
He said the wildfire situation in Saskatchewan remains on average, despite an active spring, thanks in part to Mother Nature cooperating. He said this has allowed them to export a higher than normal amount of personnel while maintaining the fire load at home. He said more crews from Saskatchewan could be en route to B.C. in the near future.
“We have been helping east to west. We started in Quebec and helped them and then Ontario … and [now] B.C. got busy,” Roberts said. “No agency has enough resources to manage really heavy fire years, so they rely on their neighbours.”