What’s the first thing a Canadian firefighter notices about working south of the border?
“There are no bugs here,” Alberta helitack crew member Tony Campbell said at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopter base in Missoula on Wednesday. “We get clouds of them in the muskeg. They’re all over you. You put on your head net and your gloves and roll down your sleeves and hope you don’t have a rip in your pants. That’s happened to a couple of guys. So it’s a lot more enjoyable here in that sense.”
The second best?
“The appreciation of the people,” said crew boss Kris Heemeryck. “The welcome we received is outstanding. It’s not that common to get that kind of thanks back home, but then, there’s not that many people where we work.”
Heemeryck leads firefighters in a 4 million-acre forestry division in central Alberta, in the mountains roughly between Calgary and Edmonton. But for the past week, he and his eight-man helitack team have been reinforcing Montana’s firefighters as the Lolo Creek Complex demands all available resources.
They’re part of a large contingent of ground crews, pilots, engineers and related personnel who will be in the state another two or three weeks. While some of the Type I firefighters have been deployed in the Woodman Saddle burn zone keeping the fire away from Blue Mountain, others have provided initial attack on small fires elsewhere in the Missoula area.
Fire information officer Cindy Super said Canadian and American initial attack goals match closely. The Alberta crews aim to control their burns at under 5 acres by 10 a.m. the following morning. In Montana, the standard is to gain control before it reaches 10 acres.
“If you lose that first 10, you’re looking at something like Lolo,” said Super, with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The Lolo Creek Complex started as two small fires that caught a windstorm and grew to 3,500 acres in an afternoon. Two weeks later, it’s 10,902 acres and four miles west of Lolo and the Highway 93 corridor.
Albertan initial attack crews typically use four firefighters in a small helicopter to hit remote fires far from roads. Here they double-team as a squad of eight. One other thing the Canadians like about their Montana visit is the larger crew means a larger helicopter.
“In the L-205, we’re more like a tank in the air,” firefighter Matt Heacock said. “Our little A-Stars get bumped around a lot, especially in the hills.”
The medium-class helicopter they came in can also lift a big bucket of water or haul large pumps and hose systems. Heemeryck said Albertan crews rely a lot more on setting up sprinklers and hose systems to fight fires, while Montanans dig much more hand line.
“We’ve got water pretty much everywhere we land,” said firefighter Nathan Tooze, whose boots are waterproof as well as fireworthy. “That’s the biggest difference. Usually the first thing we do after landing is get the bucket hooked up.”
Canadian firefighters also frequently use airplanes that can skim water from lakes to drop on flames. Heemeryck said the scooper can use either straight water or inject foam retardant into the payload. Interestingly, he said in some Alberta grasslands, retardant forms a shell on top of the vegetation that fire can sneak under. In those cases, the scooper planes use water only, because it soaks through to the dirt.
Scooper planes have had limited success in the United States, where suitable water sources can be less available. On the other hand, Albertans don’t use two-man engine crews as much as Montanans do, because many places have no road access.
American fires tend to have a lot more houses in the forest to protect, Heemeryck said, while his people often defend power and pipe lines, water supplies and trees.
But either side of the border, initial attack involves a lot of sitting around. The firefighters pack their 24-hour bags with fresh food every morning and stow them on the helicopter, then wait for a dispatch. They can’t leave the base to get lunch or take a break, because they’d miss the five-minute “getaway time” goal for lifting off to a fire.
“It’s a hurry-up-and-wait business,” Super said. “But when you need these guys, you need them.”