What it takes to be a wildland firefighter

Eva Holland Special for the News The standardized fitness test for Canada's wildland firefighters is as much a game of strategy as it is a feat of raw strength and endurance. I learn that quickly, but not soon enough.

The standardized fitness test for Canada’s wildland firefighters is as much a game of strategy as it is a feat of raw strength and endurance. I learn that quickly, but not soon enough.

I start out blazing – or at least, I start in an awkward, shuffling half-run, a nine-pound weight belt secured by velcro around my waist and 63 pounds of weights on a wooden board strapped awkwardly to my back. After a few laps of the course, my speed slows, and after a few more I stop entirely, lean against a folding table, and cough and choke down air and water while a small gathering of spectators – a paramedic, a couple of firefighters, another reporter – urges me on. I started too fast, and now my legs are rubbery and a burning vertical line spreads from my throat down through my ribcage.

There is a real-life logic to the test’s requirement to pace yourself. The test, dubbed WFX-FIT, is designed to simulate the conditions experienced by firefighters in the backcountry: If you run up the first mountain of the day, you can’t expect to still be on your feet for the last one. The Yukon’s Wildland Fire Management program adopted it in 2012 – it’s a relatively new national standard.

Throughout the week, the Yukon’s contingent of 84 wildland firefighters have been undergoing the annual test. They have to complete it within 14 minutes and 30 seconds. (Although if they’ve been on the crew for several years, they also have the option of completing it in 17:45, under a grandfather clause that would let them continue to work in the Yukon, but would not permit them to go Outside to fight fires elsewhere if called upon.) A day earlier, I’m told, one of the firefighters puked upon completion of the test. He passed.

With the testing of the real firefighters complete, members of the media have been invited to give it a whirl. Two of us have accepted the challenge and now, supervised by a paramedic and regional manager Keith Fickling, we stand nervously in the Whitehorse broomball arena, waiting to see what happens next.

The test course looks like this: An orange cone marks the start line, and a second cone marks the turnaround point 20 metres away. In the middle is a triangular structure, a steep ramp with hand railings that climbs 1.22 metres, at a 35-degree angle, to a point and then drops down to the floor again. I have to circle the course a total of 33 times, going up and over the ramp structure in each direction for 29 of those laps, bearing a variety of weighted loads along the way.

After signing some paperwork and passing a blood pressure test -“Think calm thoughts,” the paramedic tells me as she fastens the cuff around my upper arm – I’m ready to begin. I start with the weighted wooden board, 63 pounds and designed to simulate a pump, strapped to my back, and complete four up-and-over laps at a good speed. I am on pace to beat the cutoff time by 30 seconds, Fickling tells me.

Next I remove the board from my back and carry it in my arms: two more laps of the course, skipping the ramp this time because I’d need my hands free to be able to tackle it. My arms quiver as I shuffle-run back to the starting point and place the weighted board back on the table. So far, so good.

The next phase is the meat of the test. I pull a 55-pound pack, filled with lengths of hose, off the ground – Fickling reminds me that he can’t help me put it on – and get my arms through the straps, then stagger back out onto the course again. I have to complete 25 laps of the course, including 50 crossings of the ramp structure, with the hose pack on my back.

All notions of attempting a quasi-run are gone now. I stare at the floor and put one foot in front of the other while the webbing of the pack straps digs into my shoulders – no cushioned straps or padded waist belts here. I complete three laps. Five laps. Seven, eight laps.

After 10 laps, I hit a wall. I pause to lean against the folding table and gulp air and water. “You can do it,” someone says, and I say “I’m really not sure if I can.” The remaining 15 laps loom over me: If I’m shaky and aching now, how much worse can it get?

Fickling reads my mind. “It doesn’t get any worse,” he tells me. If I just keep plodding on, he promises, the pain will remain the same right through to the end.

It’s what I need to hear. I decide to believe him. “I hope you’re not lying to me, Keith,” I say, and then push myself off the table and lean into lap 11.

At 13, we cheer my halfway point. I grit my teeth through to 15, 17. At 20, I realize that I really will finish this damn thing – I have enough gas left in the tank, I can feel it. I even manage to pick up speed over my final three laps: My slow, conservative plod has let me regain some energy.

After 25 laps, I dump the pack on the floor – victory! – and move to the test’s final stage. I grab a hose attached to a weighted sled – the drag is meant to simulate the force required to advance on a fire with a hose charged with water – sling it over my shoulder and haul the whole apparatus for two final lengths of the course. When I finish, I’m too tired to cheer. My final time? 19:43.

At first I’m disappointed that I’m so far off the national standard (although Fickling assures me that better strategy alone could have shaved a minute or two off my time). Then, after a bit of reflection, I realize I’m glad that a reasonably fit, desk-bound civilian like myself can’t just wander in here and pass without any training.

After all, fighting wildfires is serious business: Last year, 176 wildfires burned across a total of 270,000 hectares, making 2013 the fifth-worst Yukon wildfire season in 55 years. And if our early, hot, dry spring is any indication, 2014 should see plenty of fires, too.

As I walk slowly back to my car, ready to return to my desk and my cushioned office chair, I decide I’m happy to leave the firefighting to the pros.

Eva Holland is a Whitehorse-based freelance writer.