Fighting the flames

"It's the beginning of fall, boys!" James Kathrein is only half kidding. The Yukon Wildland Fire Management officer is giving his morning briefing to a dozen Yukon wildland firefighters.

“It’s the beginning of fall, boys!”

James Kathrein is only half kidding. The Yukon Wildland Fire Management officer is giving his morning briefing to a dozen Yukon wildland firefighters. The situation throughout the territory is quiet and it’s only July 28. On the fire danger rating map, the territory is mostly shown in green – low risk.

The firefighters listen quietly. They’re all wearing their yellow suits with the Yukon wildland fire management badge sewed on their shoulders. Some are fidgeting in their chairs while Kathrein shows lightning forecasts, fire danger and fire spread maps.

“Anybody else looking for days off, marriage, divorce?” asks Kathrein, after a firefighter requests time off, eliciting a few laughs here and there.

Time off is particularly precious for wildland firefighters when the fire season gets busy – they can be sent for up to 19 days in the wilderness to fight fires, working 12 to 14-hour shifts.

But on this day, the firefighters won’t do any firefighting. Instead they’ll work out, help with fire smart prevention and clean up equipment used in previous missions.

Twenty-one firefighters and eight trucks are stationed at the Southern Lakes base, next to the Whitehorse airport, covering Teslin, Watson Lake and Whitehorse.

Not far from there is the Wildland Fire Management headquarters.

It looks the way you would imagine: a large room with lots of human-sized maps, live maps with hundreds of icons, symbols and flashing points – tracking fires and air tankers – and phone operators.

But even at the height of the fire season, when dealing with up to 10 new fires a day, there won’t be shouting and running around like you see the in movies.

“(When) it gets really intense, you have to be quiet,” explains Mike Sparks, a fire duty officer.

When public reports come in, Sparks’ team plots them on a live map that all six regional fire offices in the territory have access to.

Headquarters coordinates requests for air tankers, helicopters and patrols and the regional offices are the ones assigning crews to fires.

But on this day things have quieted down so the Yukon team is getting ready to assist Outside.

“We’re looking to support other agencies, shipping out resources,” explains Sparks.

A week later, 33 Yukon firefighters were sent to Idaho and Oregon.

Even for a territory the size of the Yukon, Wildland Fire Management only has 103 people on staff, including 66 firefighters.

Technology has come a long way in the past decade and now the department can rely on publicly available satellite images, using heat detection to plot new fires.

It’s particularly helpful for remote areas of the Yukon. While firefighters don’t attack those fires, if they’re far enough from communities, they still need to keep an eye on them.

“Early in May when we started picking up a lot of those fires we started bringing in some resources,” said Sparks. Seventy-five Ontario firefighters arrived in late May, followed by more in June from British Columbia.

The situation escalated for much of Western Canada at the same time around mid-June, forcing firefighting agencies to request support from as far as New Zealand and South Africa.

Sparks has been working in the firefighting industry for over 35 years, including 15 as a fire duty officer in Whitehorse. When he is on duty, he is on call around the clock.

Fighting wildfires is always a challenge. But the Yukon is unique, requiring a minimum six-week training for new recruits.

On top of the usual dangers, firefighters here have to deal with wildlife in remote areas, and the odd secluded Yukoner, who might not appreciate the company.

On the live map, a red triangle with the caption “Dangerous Occupants” represents them. They could be anything from marijuana growers to hardcore libertarians, but also Yukoners who set up bear traps to protect themselves, like shotguns wired to trees.

Firefighters can also count on air tankers. This year the Yukon contracted a Lockheed L-88 Electra on top of three Conair Air Tractor planes to dump retardant. The Electra can dump over 11,000 litres of retardant, and the Air Tractor 3,000 each.

When their assistance is requested, the planes are loaded with a five-to-one mix of water and retardant concentrate.

“It basically snuffs out the combustible gas,” explains Lee Manchuk, the air tanker base supervisor.

The planes only dump on the perimeter of the fire, to contain the flames and eventually put it out.

The product is actually fertilizer with red dye to allow pilots to better evaluate the drops.

The drop is directed by an air attack officer in a “bird dog” airplane keeping an eye on things.

That’s because the pilots dropping the retardant have to fly as low as 150 feet over the fire, while going fast. The officer in the bird dog plane watches for obstacles so the airplane can safely rise out of the zone.

So far there have been 182 fires since the beginning of the fire season, most of them lightning-caused.

“The public here is very good,” said Sparks.

“When the conditions are hot and dry they’re fairly careful with fires.”

It’s in sharp contrast with Alaska, where two-thirds of the fires were caused by humans.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at

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