Wildland firefighters patrol charred forests near Fort McMurray as wildfire season continues

Wildland firefighters scour the blackened forest for hot spots as a wildfire that evacuated parts of Fort McMurray becomes under control.

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Wildland firefighters call it the black.

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It was once lush Boreal Forest southwest of Fort McMurray. Now it’s ash and charred tree trunks leftover from a mid-May wildfire. The wildfire has been under control since Sunday and is no longer a threat.

To keep it that way, wildland firefighters patrol the black for hot spots. Even after heavy rainfall, it is common for wildfires to smoulder underground and feed on peat and dead vegetation. If ignored, the fire could return to the surface.

On a cold and wet Wednesday morning, dozens of firefighters crisscross the black. They look for smoke, warm spots and any other sign the fire still thrives underground. The black is dotted with dead trees supported by weak, crumbling bases. Learn to spot the ones that could fall on you and the area is safe.

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“This is just to ensure this fire will never spread again,” said Ben Young, a unit crew subleader with a group of wildland firefighters based in Fort McMurray for the summer. “This is pretty par for the course for wildfires in May.”

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Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

More than 6,600 people left home when a wildfire doubled in size in 24 hours on May 14. Forests charred in past wildfires were not buffers. Instead, the flames crawled forward as they fed on grass, bushes and small trees.

When homes are being evacuated, Young and his crew have to “dial it out” of their minds and trust their command structure. They can’t afford distractions when faced with thick smoke and a wall of fire.

“On the day the fire progressed towards town… you could sort of feel it in the morning that it was going to be a good fire-weather day, as we refer to it as,” said Young.

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“When the situation is fluid, it’s exciting and it can be mildly stressful. But you just always gotta go back to the basics. As long as everybody comes home at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

Drought, 2023 wildfires has officials on edge

Last year’s wildfire season has provincial and municipal officials nervous, especially as much of Alberta faces one of the worst droughts in its history.

The 2023 wildfire season burned 22,000 square kilometres in Alberta, or about 10 times the five-year average. Evacuations scattered 38,000 people from 48 communities across Alberta.

Locally wildfires burned more than 3,643 square kilometres, mostly around Fort Chipewyan. An evacuation of Fort Chipewyan affected about 1,000 people. More than 350 people from Fort Smith, NWT and Fort Fitzgerald flew to Fort McMurray when wildfires threatened their homes.

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The federal government expects the annual wildfire burn area in Canada to double by 2050 as droughts and extreme heat become common.

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Cadhan Moore feels the ground for hot spots in an area burned by a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

The province has hired 520 wildland firefighters for this season and has contracts with an extra 320 firefighters. There are 72 wildland firefighters in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo area. A crew of four to eight firefighters are in Fort Chipewyan on a rotational basis.

The work is gruelling. Shifts fighting a wildfire can last 14 to 16 hours. Crews are flown to wildfires with helicopters if trucks or off-road vehicles can’t reach the area. Pilots try to land within a kilometre of the fire line, but there have been times when Young has had to hike through two to three kilometres of forest to reach the fire.

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They carry axes, chainsaws, water pumps, shovels, food, survival gear and plenty of hoses. They need to make their stand near a water source that can fuel their assault against the flames. Helicopters and planes try to slow the fire’s advance by dumping with thousands of litres of water and fire retardant at the fire’s perimeter.

“A lot of times fires will look the same on the ground, but there’s always something that happens on the fire that looks a little bit different,” said Cadhan Moore, another unit crew subleader. “There’s new ways to attack it, new ways to make plans with each other. There’s new, different dynamics every time.”

As they search for hot spots, the firefighters stop and get on their knees. They check under burnt logs and put their hands in the ashen dirt, making sure what once burned hot is now cool. When they find a hot spot, the crew breaks apart the area with their tools and smother it with water.

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Ben Young, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

More funding, benefits needed for firefighters: AUPE

The job pays between $22.44 and $30.17 per hour, depending on position and experience. Alberta Wildfire covers food and accommodation. The province says retention rates for the past five years are roughly 70 per cent, but did not yet have data for the 2024 season.

The union representing the firefighters, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), says more than half of firefighters from 2023 did not return this year. AUPE wants raises and presumptive cancer coverage for seasonal firefighters. The province has mental health supports available, but only during their seasonal employment.

Young and his crew did not mention the dispute between the province and AUPE, but Young said there is no question the job is hard physically and mentally. So is his off-season job as a lobster fisherman in Nova Scotia.

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Still, Young finds wildland firefighting and the camaraderie rewarding. He could try to get a job with a municipal fire department, but Young says he loves the outdoors too much.

Young has returned every year since 2015. Moore and another firefighter on the crew are both on their sixth year with Alberta Wildfire. Another firefighter is on their second year. This is the first year for the remaining four firefighters on the crew.

“You’ll see the new folks coming in at the beginning of the year a little wet behind the ears. But by the end of the summer, they’ll have toughened up a bit and their knowledge of wildland firefighting has grown, then you’ll see them back next year,” said Young.

“Long days on the fireline can be tough day in and day out, but it builds character.”

Cadhan Moore looks up at the trees in an area burned by a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Cadhan Moore looks up at the trees in an area burned by a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Cadhan Moore, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Cadhan Moore, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Andrea Franko, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Andrea Franko, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters gather water from a nearby river while patrolling a burned area southwest of Fort McMurray for hot spots on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters gather water from a nearby river while patrolling a burned area southwest of Fort McMurray for hot spots on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A wildland firefighter during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Wildland firefighters during a search for hot spots in an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A tracked vehicle used to carry wildland firefighters is parked next to a fire guard near an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A tracked vehicle used to carry wildland firefighters is parked next to a fire guard near an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Ben Young, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, stands in a fire break near an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Ben Young, a wildland firefighter with Alberta Wildfire, stands in a fire break near an area burned by wildfires southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Ben Young, centre, with his crew of wildland firefighters in an area burned by a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 21, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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