During the peak of the 2018 wildfire season in August there were 107 out-of-province personnel working in the Cariboo Fire Centre (CFC) , said Ryan Turcot, information officer with the BC Wildfire Service.
“Provincially, at this year’s peak, there were 961 out-of-province personnel working in B.C.,” Turcot added, noting the extra personnel came from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Parks Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Washington.
Before they departed for home, Clive Gibbs from Canberra, Australia and Gerard Carroll from St. George’s, Nfld. told the Tribune they enjoyed an opportunity to help out at the Cariboo Fire Centre.
Gibbs worked in logistics while Carroll was tasked with planning.
Gibbs arrived in Williams Lake on Aug. 8 and said it was his second time being deployed to Canada as he was in Alberta in 2015 working on the Complex fire at High River.
As a logistics chief, he organized resources, crews, medics, food, communications, supply, facilities, and accommodation for the CFC.
He does not have a fire background, but is retired from being a furniture retailer for 26 years and volunteers with the state emergency service (SES) in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), putting in about 12 hours a week.
“I also volunteer with the Australian federal police as well, and probably put in about 15 hours a week with them. I have a background as a military policeman.”
Volunteers for the ACT number 310, and Gibbs said they had 64 new recruits sign up in recent weeks.
“In New South Wales we have 72,000 firefighting volunteers. We don’t deal with contractors back home. The government will supply all the equipment such as uniforms, vehicles and the rest is down to volunteers.”
In the rural section of the ACT there are 750 firefighting volunteers and 1,000 community fire unit volunteers and they are people who live in the urban-rural interface.
“There is a trailer parked at the end of the street with a pump and equipment and they will look after their own area,” Gibbs said. “And we only have a population of 350,000.”
Gibbs said the development of volunteer firefighting units was a response to terrible bush fires in 2003 where they lost 520 homes and 70 per cent of pastures, plantations and nature parks were severely damaged.
“It was an absolute bloody disaster and in 2004 they changed things and amalgamated everything under one agency.”
There are also urban fire departments in place that do structure protection that have paid firefighters, he added.
As for his time in the Cariboo, Gibbs “loved” it.
“The first two weeks I was here we were just running on adrenalin from seven in the morning until 10:30 at night. We’d do 14 days on and two days off.”
Praising the staff at the CFC and the newly-hired manager Mike Gash, who started on the same day as he did, Gibbs said they were very welcoming.
“They were quite trusting, to be honest. They didn’t know me from Adam. I hope I didn’t let them down. It’s nice to come over and think that you’ve helped or at least given people a break.”
Gibbs is going home to a fire danger rating that is already high in Australia and they have just finished winter there.
“The forest fuel index is 10, which is as high as it goes, and the forecast is for little rain and above high temperatures. We’ve had fires all up the coast already in the winter in areas which are supposed to be lush and green.”
Carroll works for the government of Nfld. and Labrador in forest fire management and co-ordination.
He arrived in Williams Lake on Aug. 23 after spending one day at the Prince George Fire Centre.
During his time at the CFC he was chief for the planning section, tracking all resources, especially crews such as unit crews, 20-packs, initial attacks, contracts, emergency firefighters and structural protection contractors.
Compared to Newfoundland, Carroll noticed the BCWF approach was “a lot more in depth.”
“What I mean by that is there’s a lot more thorough planning and operations of course, just simply because of the magnitude of fires in the centre compared to what we’d experience back home. I’m not saying we don’t get anything at home, but our fires are not as big and as sporadic for the number of fires.”
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) August 11, 2018
Carroll has worked in planning for a decade.
Through the Mutual Aid Resource Sharing Agreement (MARS) where every province is part of the Canadian Integrated Forest Fire Centre, he has been to B.C. two times before and to Ontario once.
While at the CFC he was very busy and said it was a great experience getting to work out of the fire centre, which was taking care of all the fires in the region.
“It’s a priceless experience because I got to see the whole picture and see how it works behind the scenes in B.C. I also got to work with very professional people. It was a life-time experience I don’t think I’ll ever experience again.”
He felt honoured to be asked to assist, he added.
“I just came to pitch in and help my fellow Canadians when in need.”
Turcott said at last year’s peak, there were over 1,200 out-of-province personnel working in B.C. for the 2017 wildfires.
“I do not have an exact breakdown readily available for how many of them were specifically stationed in the Cariboo last year, but I would imagine the majority of them would have been split between the Elephant Hill wildfire and all the other Wildfires of Note that were burning in the Cariboo Fire Centre, since that’s where the majority of last year’s fire activity occurred,” Turcot said.
“Last year’s out-of-province personnel came from every province and territory in B.C.,except Nunavut, as well as from Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.”
Turcot said resources in Canada are shared on a formal basis under (MARS), which outlines three categories of resources: equipment, personnel, and aircraft.
The MARS facilitates co-operation among jurisdictions, allowing resources to be loaned and borrowed as needed, while the Canadian Mutual Aid Resource Sharing Agreement sets out the terms under which resources can be legally shared, how resources will be made available, what costs will be involved, and the conditions for their return.