The Forest Service Protection Program has two types of crews:
- three-person initial attack crews respond to the first fire call; and,
- 20-person unit crews are dispatched to larger fires where significant resources may be needed to fight the blaze.
Initial Attack Crews
Initial attack fire fighters are usually the first crews on the scene of a new fire. The crews generally respond to small fires and are the key reason BC is able to contain 94 percent of new fire starts within 24 hours of discovery.
Motivated by the Hit Hard Hit Fast motto, these well trained rapid response fire crews use a truck (Firetack) or helicopter (Helitack) to reach the fire site, depending on the location and accessibility.
Once fire fighters are at the fire, the three crew members work quickly to set up water pumps, remove fuel from the fire's path using a pulaski or shovel, and dig fire guards to help control or extinguish the blaze. This work is essential as we strive to contain more than 90 per cent of BC's fires within 24 hours of discovery.
Initial attack crews are highly mobile and can often be relocated throughout the province and the country to be ready to respond to new fires in other regions and provinces. In addition, crews are self-sufficient and can remain on a fire for up to 24 hours without re-supply.
Initial attack fire fighters are stationed at more than 50 bases around the province, close to where fires break out. Some accommodation is available at a limited number of bases for a nominal fee.
Inaccessible Lightning fires
During the summer months, lightning storms often illuminate BC skies.
A review of lightning fire starts show these fires most often occur at higher elevations in inaccessible terrain. Historically, these lightning fires would break out in dense timber and take off unchecked until crews could hike in and fight the blaze.
The monumental cost of these fires lead to the development of the specialized Rapattack fire fighting team which uses a helicopter and rope rappelling technique to drop into the fire area and attack these lightning-caused fires when they are small.
Rapattack crews are also used on larger fires to move into an area and remove timber and create a helicopter landing location so additional crews and equipment can be strategically located around the fire's perimeter.
Like all fire fighters, candidates for the Rapattack program must be physically fit, highly motivated and unequivocally focused on teamwork. In addition, the nature of the work, using a helicopter and rappel technique, requires crew members to limit their weight to 170 pounds (77 kilograms) dressed weight (in street clothes). Rapattack members must hold a valid WCB Occupational Level 3 First Aid ticket, and it is preferred that they have a Class 4 drivers license.
The Rapattack Program operates out of a training and residential base in Salmon Arm, which is centrally located to many of the lightning fires.
Once selected for the Rapattack team, crew members locate to the Salmon Arm base for a rigorous and intense training program in the rappel technique. After successful completion of ground school, 100 rappels from the base's tower and rappels from a helicopter, crew members are certified as Rapattack fire fighters.
While most of the crew dispatches will be from the Salmon Arm or McBride secondary base, crews can often be relocated, on short notice, to other regions of the province as fire activity requires.
Each year, a small percentage of fires grow to a significant size which require additional fire fighters and resources. Twenty-member unit crews were developed to serve as a highly trained and coordinated fire fighting force for these larger fires.
Unit crews are often called sustained action crews because of their specialized skills for fighting larger blazes as well as their ability to be self sufficient on a fire for up to 72 hours.
Once on a fire, crew members are responsible for containing the blaze. Attack strategies include establishing pumps and hose lines, digging fire guards with pulaskis and shovels, using chainsaws and burning off techniques to remove fuel from the main fire's path and working around heavy equipment to secure the fire's perimeter.
The work can take fire fighters into difficult terrain amidst dry, dusty and at times, very hot and smoky conditions for up to 14 days. The 20-person unit may also be broken into smaller groups depending on the nature of fire activity.
There are 20 unit crews stationed around the province for easy dispatch. Four residential base camps are home for crew members in Surrey, Slocan (near Nelson), Riske Creek (near Williams Lake) and Princeton. There is a nominal fee charged to the fire fighters to cover costs of food and accommodation at these residential bases. Other fire fighters will be able to live at home if they are on a crew near their own community while some fire fighters will have to find their own accommodation if they are stationed away from their home location.
Like their initial attack counterparts, unit crews are highly mobile and can be called away from their base to work on fires in any BC location, or from time to time, other areas of Canada.
When fire fighters are dispatched to a fire away from their base location, they may live in remote and temporary fire camps with few amenities. In the case of large fires with numerous crews and staff, a camp will be established near the fire area. Meals will be prepared in the camp and fire fighters will be housed in large tents on site. Shower and wash facilities are also part of the camp complex.
Native Unit Crews
The Forest Service is proud to be a partner with Aboriginal communities around the province. Through this successful liaison, we operate 15 Native Unit Crews. These crews offer employment and training opportunities for young Native community members. In addition, the crews are often stationed near their own communities to provide fire protection in those locations as well as other regions of the province.
Native crew members are selected and hired by Forest Service staff in co-operation with local band offices. Applicants must successfully complete all phases of the selection process including the screening, pre-employment test and interview stages. Interested applicants should contact their band office for an application package.
As with all of BC's fire fighters, native unit crew members must be highly motivated, in superior physical shape, have excellent team spirit and be committed to the safest possible work standards.
While fire line work can be laborious and hazardous, the team spirit and camaraderie among the group is contagious and can help shape a fire fighter's outlook on life and the future.