On the front line of an inferno

The helicopter packed with firefighters rose above the treeline and gave Dan Adamson a bird's eye view of the wildfires raging all around him. Mushroom clouds sprang up in every direction.

The helicopter packed with firefighters rose above the treeline and gave Dan Adamson a bird’s eye view of the wildfires raging all around him.

Mushroom clouds sprang up in every direction.

The way Adamson described what he saw, it sounded like he was in a war zone.

“It looked like atomic bombs,” the 35-year-old said.

The 16-year veteran firefighter and crew leader served two separate tours in the Northwest Territories this summer, going to Fort Smith and Kakisa.

Yukon firefighters were available to lend a helping hand during their slowest wildfire season on record.

It was so slow, in fact, that Adamson said he didn’t have to fight a single fire in the Yukon this summer.

“The only fire I put out was the burn pile in my front yard,” he said.

A total of 59 Wildland Fire Management personnel were deployed to the neighbouring territory on five occasions, according to spokesman George Maratos.

For 19 days each time, Adamson and his crews fought to contain some of the most ferocious blazes the N.W.T. has seen.

He said it reminded him of 2004, the summer 261 fires burned an area of Yukon forest the size of Northern Ireland, or approximately 1.71 million hectares.

That summer it cost the Yukon government $33 million to fight forest fires.

It’s too early to determine how much was spent this fire season, but Maratos said it would be below Wildland Fire Management’s $15.1 million budget.

In comparison, 385 fires raged in the N.W.T. this summer, burning an estimated 3.38 million hectares, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.

Volunteers were picked and sent either as individuals or in groups of 20 that are then split up into crews and leaders.

Adamson’s crews worked to put out hot spots using suppression equipment such as shovels and chainsaws. They would also run thousands of feet of hose to fight fires in different strategic locations.

An unseasonably dry summer meant temperatures soared in the N.W.T., especially in proximity to wildfires, and were literally too hot to handle.

It was, on average, 35 Celsius during the day and around 30 Celsius at night.

Closer to the fires, Adamson’s equipment picked up temperatures in the 50s.

“It was hot – there was nowhere to be cool and inside your tent, you were roasting,” he said.

“On site I got the worst chafing of my life. Sometimes we had to work for 40 minutes then break for 20. Some guys had symptoms of heat exhaustion.”

Firefighters wore equipment that weighed about 30 kilograms.

Before being shipped out of Whitehorse, they received extensive training for six weeks. “By the time they get there, there isn’t much they haven’t done already,” he said.

On a typical day, they would get up just before 6 a.m. and go have breakfast at a nearby camp.

When Adamson first arrived on July 11, there were only about 40 people there. The population of the camp had swelled to around 180 by the second tour.

Then they would attend a morning briefing and receive their marching orders for the day.

Crews would board helicopters and scout the wildfires from the air, then determine the best spots to work from.

On the way back home there was a stopover in Yellowknife.

Adamson said the smell of smoke was overpowering and lingered everywhere.

“You just got used to it,” he said.

“I walked through the large mall in the middle of town and everything smelled of smoke. The bathrooms, jewelry shops, electronics store. Nothing was untouched by smoke.”

He said the hardest part of the summer had nothing to do with fires, heat or smoke.

“You can’t plan on doing anything during those active times, I put everything on hold,” he said.

“Even doggy training classes are out of the question. Everyone’s gear is already packed so they’re ready to go in 15 minutes if need be. You have to make sure your stuff is handled and you’re with a person who understands that it’s part of the job.

“Being away from the people you love – that’s the hardest part.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at