fall 2015

by Kelsy Gibos (Students of Fire)

A recent rash of lightning-caused wildfires across the Canadian boreal forest tested the provincial firefighting agencies’ resource capability and capacity. Here in Alberta, resources from around the world and across various Incident Command System (ICS) positions and expertise levels arrived to support our suppression efforts, making for a multi-cultural firefighting experience. It’s amazing how fire can be such a universal language.

In July I was deployed with a Type 1 Incident Management Team (IMT) to a fast-moving fire in the Lesser Slave Lake Wildfire Management Area. The Brintnell Complex was made up of a series of lightning strikes that grew together and burned in black spruce and mixedwood forest types. The fire grew to 9,895 ha (24,450 acres) before crews fully contained it using dozer lines, natural barriers and lots and lots of hard work at the fire line.

Firefighters from four different countries: Canada, Australia, the USA and South Africa found a common understanding in the boreal forest and muskeg. Our crews were made up of folks from Alberta’s First Nations communities, Alberta Unit Crews, Alberta Helitack crews, Colorado Hotshots, an air branch full of Australians from both Victoria and New South Wales, and a 20-person crew of South African firefighters who would often sing their way along the line while swinging tools. Operational briefings were full of interesting accents and different takes on similar problems.

Darcy McGregor (Operations Chief) briefing the operations branch made up of Canadians, Americans, Australians and South Africans. (Photo: K.Gibos)

The universality of fire was interesting. We had a mix of cultures, experience and operational roles, yet everyone found their place to contribute to the overall incident objectives. There were surely some interesting moments, like defining the difference between an ice “cooler,” a “chilly bin” and an “esky,” which, by the way, are all the same thing, but overall the ‘united nations’ of fires was a very humbling experience.

Another challenging translation was our Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating system because of its many numbers and codes that can be difficult to put into context for those unfamiliar with it. Turned out that speaking about head fire intensity and ease of suppression (i.e. is direct attack safe?) was best for communicating potential fire behavior. Our US visitors took our metric weather briefings in stride, and the ICS structure made it easy to communicate responsibilities and duties.

Multicultural command/operations section staff. (Front row sitting or kneeling left to right): Mike Kingsbury-Planning Section Chief, Dave Menzies-Jackson-Strike Team Leader, John van de Parverd-Strike Team Leader, Timothy Hedges-AREP for South Africa.
(Back row left to right): Greg Partridge-Division Supervisor, Mike Frederick-Division Supervisor, Barry Shellian-Safety Officer, George Courtorielle- Strike Team Leader, Kevin Topolnicki-Incident Commander, Gerhard van Niekerk-AREP for South Africa, Darcy McGregor-Operations Section Chief, Greg Hitch-Strike Team Leader. (Photo: M. Anderson)

A standout moment at the Brintnell Complex came when an Alberta First Nations Strike Team Leader shared videos from his phone of his culture’s traditional dance with a group of South African firefighters who quite regularly burst into song on the fire line. It was a strong reminder that although we have very different backgrounds, we can find commonalities when we come together with pulaskis and shovels. When there is hard work to be done putting wet stuff on hot stuff, your race, background, financial standing, first language, uniform color, etc. simply does not matter. Talk around the dinner table ranged from stories about burning mallee bush and protecting potoroos to chasing fast-moving grass fires in the South African landscape.

Above all, we learned that our response to fire equalizes us all, and we have lots to learn from each other’s stories and experiences. Multi-national environments, like this one, provide an incredible opportunity for learning and sharing. In the words of another Student of Fire, Roger Strickland, “We will all progress in knowledge and understanding when we open our minds to each other.”

Firefighters and IMT staff at the Brintnell Complex in northern Alberta on 22 July 2015. That’s me on one knee in the far right corner. (Photo: M. Anderson).