Kevin Cochrane of BC Wildfire Services looks on as firefighters practice their hovering heli-exit strategies. Sarah Gawdin/Hope Standard

VIDEO: Behind the scenes of wildfire training ahead of B.C’s busiest season

Practicing exiting a hovering aircraft helps ensure firefighters can attend any fire site

It was as though they were performing a series of dance moves—each foot moving slightly behind or beside the other deliberately—however, in this case, missing a step didn’t mean missing a beat, it meant falling out of a helicopter into a wildfire.

Okay, not a real fire. But the helicopter was real enough as members from B.C. Wildfire Services practiced their hover-exit maneuvers at the Hope airport Tuesday afternoon.

Unlike structure fires, or fires within populated areas, forest fires don’t always have roads that can deliver firefighters to an active burn, so a helicopter is used to literally drop them where they need to be.

READ MORE: Unusually dry March leads to dozens of grass fires in B.C.

“If the terrain is very difficult and we can’t find a flat spot to actually land the helicopter … we use the hover-exit technique to get a crew on the ground to a fire,” explained Brian Davis, crew leader for the Initial Attack team.

First responders of a sort, Davis says it’s the Initial Attack team who’s first contacted to report on the conditions of the fire and report back to the fire centre on whether they can contain it themselves or will need more assistance. So it’s important they’re delivered to fire sites quickly and safely.

The annual training is mandatory because it keeps the firefighters up-to-date and practicing because, as it’s used as a last resort, the technique isn’t used every year. However, in his seventh season with B.C. Wildfire Services, Davis says the heli-exit experience can be a nerve-wracking one for beginners.

“A lot of times these guys haven’t even flown in a helicopter and they’re being asked to now step out of one that’s hovering.”

Yet it’s not only the newbies who feel nervous as they step out of a hovering helicopter. “There’s still a rush for sure—that’s why I love the job. That initial rush you get when you’re flying out to the fire trying to figure out what to do.”

And with record low precipitation levels in March, and reports of wildfires already coming in, the training couldn’t come at a better time.

But “it’s impossible to really predict how many fires we’re going to get—I really have no idea,” continued Davis, who spends his winters living in the Fraser Valley and summers fighting fires across the province. “You just have to take them as they come.”

As of April 1, there were are 28 wildfires larger than 0.009 hectares burning in various locations around the province. In 2017, B.C. experienced its worst wildfire season on record—with 2018 being the second worst—nearly $570 million was spent trying to suppress fires that burned across 1.2 million hectares of land, and displaced 65,000 people.


 

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