Published: 05 April, 2011
Firefighters who parachute into wildland fires may sound like something out of an action movie, but they exist. Special report from British Columbia by emergency planning consultant Paul Dixon.
The British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range employs over 1,100 Type 1 wildland firefighters as initial attack crews and larger unit crews stationed at more than 50 bases strategically located around the province. Of all those highly trained firefighters, there is only one parattack team, the North Peace Smokejumpers.
Tom Reinboldt is the Operations Supervisor for BC’s parattack program. He became a smokejumper in the Yukon during the 1980s to make enough money to spend the next winter in Costa Rica. Something clicked and he ended up spending the next seven winters in Costa Rica, jumping every summer. After the Yukon discontinued smokejumpers in the early ‘90s, Reinboldt spent several years in the private sector, before putting together a proposal for the government of BC in 1996 to start their own program, “because” as he says, “it just seemed like the right time”. It was the right time and 1998 saw the program roll out with 18 jumpers. Today, the 38 members of the North Peace Smokejumpers or Parattack program, operate from Fort St. John, in the Peace River country of northeastern BC.
Europeans often fail to comprehend the vastness and relative emptiness of Canada outside the major urban centers. British Columbia ranks as only the fifth largest of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories, yet its landmass (94 million hectares) is four times that of the entire United Kingdom. At 770 miles, the distance by road from Vancouver to Fort St. John is 100 miles greater than that from London to John O’Groats, with another long day’s drive to the Yukon beyond.
BC has as diverse a geography and ecosystem as any area on the planet, mountains, high plains, temperate rain forests, vast grasslands of the interior, northern boreal forest and muskeg. The climate varies widely, from some of the highest rainfall areas in the world to Canada’s only desert. Day to day weather is the result of a constant struggle between the moist inflow winds from the Pacific, the El Niño and La Niña, and the dry outflow winds from the interior of the country, arctic cold in winter, blast-furnace hot in summer. In recent years, the dry winds have been pushing more strongly, resulting in an extended drought across much of the central and northern interior, a situation exacerbated by the millions of hectares of timber killed by mountain pine beetle, spruce budworm and other pests. During the summer months, lightning storms frequently sweep across much of the province, leaving scores of fires in their wake.
The Parattack program operates with a single DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft and pilots provided by Kenn Borek Air of Calgary, Alberta. Tom Reinboldt describes the relationship between the pilots and his staff as “absolutely extraordinary, The pilots we work with are exceptional at understanding the nature of the job and our requirements.” With an operational radius of more than 350 miles, the Twin Otter covers far more territory than a helicopter, flies faster and is able to “loiter” for much longer periods without refueling. Its excellent short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities enable it to operate from rough strips and forward bases that are inaccessible to a larger aircraft, while its operational costs are measured in the hundreds of dollars an hour versus thousands of dollars an hour for a medium helicopter such as a Bell 205.
In addition to the pilot the aircraft carries two three-person teams of smokejumpers, a command spotter and 1,400 pounds of firefighting gear which includes two high-pressure pump kits, 4,600 feet of lightweight hose, chainsaws, overnight gear, food and water. Depending on the terrain and fire activity, the jumpers may have to land some distance from the fire.
The decision to deploy crews on any fire is made at the Regional Fire Centre by the Regional Wildfire Control Officer using the criteria of closest and/or most effective resource available to respond. Considerations for most effective use of a resource, or number of resources required to respond include the size of fire and burning conditions; any access issues (i.e. can you drive or is the fire remote), dispatch distance; what is threatened (i.e. homes and infrastructure, high value timber, etc.); and what is the current and predicted fire load within that fire centre’s region.
Chris Bergmann is in his second year as a smokejumper after seven years with ground-based initial attack crews. As the plane nears the fire, this is how they see it from the air. “Arriving over the fire, we recce the area as the pilot circles. Identify the landing zone, safe areas and potential escape routes on the ground. Establish our communications systems, make sure that we know the regional repeater and the ground frequency we will use.” The landing zone is critical. Trees, hydro lines, fences and even roads are hazards to be avoided. For a small fire, one team of three will jump or for a larger fire, both teams will go. If only one team is jumping, the team leader will jump first and the other two will follow on the second pass. If both teams are jumping, the jumpers go in pairs on three pases. The first jumper on the ground reports conditions back to the spotter before the next team jumps so that any necessary adjustments can be made.
As the jumpers ready themselves at the door of the plane Bergmann relates the process, “the spotter covers four points with the jumper; exit point, wind drift, landing zone and any hazards in the area such as trees. Then the spotter asks:“any questions?” If there are none, the jumpers will ask if they are clear to go, check their lines, and go when directed.” Jumping from 1,500 feet, arrival time on ground is usually less than a minute, though Bergmann points out that “no two jumps are the same, depending on wind, weather, updrafts and many other influences.”
Feet on the ground, the team forms up and heads for the fire. The plane will have dropped their equipment closer to the fire in a separate drop. At the same time the parattack crew was dispatched, air tankers and/or helicopters may have been dispatched to the fire, depending on resource availability. Ideally, they will have the support of one or more tankers for retardant drops and helicopters for bucketing.
Hitting the fire soon after ignition, the team strives to work around the fire, building a guard-line using chainsaws and hand tools, and then their pumps and hose lines to effectively widen the guard line. Swift response by BC’s initial attack crews across the province keeps the province close to its goal of keeping 95% of all wildfires under four hectares.
While working fire crews have to be self-supporting for up to 72 hours. Drinking water is critical and jumpers have taken to packing as much as possible within weight restrictions. Food is high-energy and lightweight, generally dried or freeze-dried. No military rations. Teams stock their food packs based on personal preferences.
On smaller fires, the team will quickly encircle the fire with a guard line, effectively killing the fire. Larger fires will require the assistance of other initial attack teams or unit crews, arriving by helicopter, vehicle or even hiking in. At the peak of the 2010 fire season, American smokejumpers from Alaska and Montana worked alongside the BC smokejumpers under the international mutual aid agreement that sees resources move quickly between Canada and the US throughout the fire season as needs arise.
When the crew has knocked the fire down and it’s time to leave, extraction can be more challenging for the team than getting there in the first place depending on how isolated the area is. Equipment is packed up. If there is no road, the equipment can be long-lined out by helicopter, while the team walks out to a road or safe landing zone for a helicopter. Ideally, the Twin Otter is able to use its superb STOL attributes on one of the myriad of small private landing strips that dot much of northern BC as a legacy from decades of oil, gas and mineral exploration.
Bergmann is quick to point out there is little down time away from the fire line. “Everything we do is related to the job. If we are not actually deployed on a fire, we are training or repairing gear. There is so much more going on behind the scenes compared to the initial attack crews. It’s a very steep learning curve.” As much as possible, team members maintain and repair their own gear, from the Kevlar jump suits to their tools. Parachutes are the responsibility of senior members.
The flexibility of the program and the individuals is what creates the high degree of effectiveness. Far from being prima donnas, the team members can deploy from helicopters, ground vehicles or form up as a 20-member unit team as the situation dictates. Tom Reinboldt says; “Specialization is for insects, the more flexible you are, the more valuable you are.”
The ten three-member crews rotate their availability, though it is not simply a matter of dropping to the bottom of the list after each mission. Big job, drop to the bottom, while a small job will see the team slotted somewhere in the middle. Over the course of a full season, the hours pretty much work out. Pay is based on a nominal 35-hour week, but during the peak fire season, crews will work up to 12 hours a day for as many as 14 consecutive days before mandatory rest time. Overtime adds up quickly.
In 2010, Reinboldt’s crews started in early April and worked through into the end of October, longer than ever before. “It was a bookend season,” he says, starting on the heels of one winter and not ending until this year’s snow returned.
2010 was the smokejumpers’ busiest year yet, with jumpers deployed on more than 60 separate fires, for a total of more than 250 individual jumps and about 200 practice jumps. Since the inception of the program in 1998 jumpers have deployed on more than 350 fires. Reinholdt takes great pride in the fact that no jumper has suffered a time-loss injury related to jumping. “Our job is to take the risk out of it. People are surprised at how calm and relaxed we are. There is enough challenge to the task at hand without adding behaviour to the mix.”