Wildfire Responder Support

JAMES PARKER  –  Aug 11, 2017

11 Aug 2017

This year's wildfire situation is the most extensive such emergency operation since 1958 when 225,920 hectares burned in the Kechika Valley. The official state of emergency has been extended until at least August 18th, and no one can predict how these fires will play out, particularly in the hot, dry month of August.

Wildfires sweep across Williams Lake, British Columbia as a CC130J Hercules flies above during Operation Lentus on 30 July 2017. (Photo: Matc Roxanne Wood)

The following statistics represent the current forest fire emergency in BC’s interior: 230 aircraft responding; almost 4,000 people (from B.C., the rest of Canada, and around the world) fighting on the front lines; and 40K people evacuated from their homes or under warning of evacuation. There 160 forest fires currently burning and new ones continue to ignite. A staggering 621,583 hectares have burned to date (some 6200 sq kilometers destroyed between April 1 and August 10, 2017.

Multiple government departments make up the Provincial Emergency Co-ordination Centre – colloquially known as ‘the PECC’ – which in turn is subordinate to Emergency Management BC (EMBC). The Canadian Armed Forces’ contribution to this effort is known as ‘Operation Lentus’.

For this emergency, the PECC has been stood up, staffed by numbers ranging from 60 to 150 people, depending on the severity of the forest fire situation at that location.

Personnel from the New Zealand Rural Fire Fighters team board a CC-130 Hercules aircraft at Abbotsford International Airport in British Columbia on 8 August 2017 before continuing on to Prince George International Airport where they will assist in battling the wildfires in the B.C. interior during Operation Lentus(Photo: Cpl Nathan Spence)

Like any organization, there is a hierarchy chart, however, the very nature of the PECC is transitory.  Most workers are provincial government employees who have left their ‘real’ jobs to staff these emergency positions, and can only be spared for so long. The work is relentless and most stints seem to be for 10 days, with the ‘battle rhythm’ being 10 days on with 1 day off. Days average 12 hours and up, depending on the fire situation and the demands from the six regions.

Ops room of the PECC
Personnel in Operations room of the Victoria PECC location. (Photo: James Parker)

The PECC consists of several ‘cells’ representing all those involved in supporting those who support the front line people. The Provincial Regional Operation Centre (PREOC) people support the more local ‘EOCs’ – Emergency Operations Centres. Here at the PECC in Victoria, we have: operations, logistics, planning, recovery, information, finance, recovery, media, social media and Canadian Armed Forces’ cells.  Some of these break down even further into ‘micro’ cells. As an ‘auxiliary’ guy – a temporary hire for the duration of the emergency – I find it fascinating and inspiring to watch these hardworking and compassionate people doing their jobs, often performing miracles to get equipment and people out to their regions.

The morning starts with a briefing by the weather people. The latest information, detailing how things stand or have changed overnight, are on the monitor screens – new fires over here, an evacuation ordered there, a fire contained up there.

CH-147 Chinooks and CH-146 Griffons standby at Williams Lake airport for a possible evacuation of the Williams Lake region during Operation LENTUS 17-04 in British Columbia, on July 15, 2017. (Photo: MCpl Gabrielle DesRochers)

There is tension in the room, all of us fearfully expecting news of overnight explosions of flame. Each department takes a turn briefing the operations centre, which is packed with all of us, clutching our coffees, still sleepy-eyed (I am at least) from long shifts on the previous the day and night.

There is good leadership here. The directors understand the importance of treating their most important asset, the people working in the PECC, sparingly and respectfully. They tell us to look after each other, take time off when we can, eat healthily, stay hydrated, get sleep, and so on. Everyone understands that this is going to be a long haul. We don’t have the physical stresses of the people on the front line – the firefighters and their direct support people – but there is stress nonetheless.

Flight Engineers unload supplies from a CH-147 Chinook helicopter in a cut off community during Operation LENTUS 17-04 in British Columbia on 18 July 2017. (Photo: MCpl Gabrielle DesRochers)

Time crunches, long days, last minute people and equipment demands, staffers rotating in and out, and more. I’m tired, and I’ve only been at it three weeks! I can barely imagine what the evacuees and firefighters must feel!

The pointy end people – the firefighters – are the heroes in this story.  But behind them are several hundred, perhaps more than a thousand, support personnel, many of them unpaid volunteers!  During this dire emergency – with no end written yet – spare a thought for these people.

– Jim Parker, a former naval reservist and teacher, is a writer living in Victoria, BC.  He is currently working as part of the logistics cell at the PECC.