Chilliwack churns out new generation of wildfire fighters

School district partners with B.C. Wildfire Service to prep Grade 12s for careers

A new generation of wildfire fighters are slogging away at their first boots-on-the-ground training camp this week.

The group of 11 Grade 12s, all from Chilliwack high schools, have been pushed through strenuous physical training that concludes on Sunday. They’ve carried dead weight, climbed obstacles and moved through several exercises that simulate a fire call.

They all have one goal in mind — to join the B.C. Wildfire Service (BCWS).

To make it in the bush they’ll need high endurance, strength and agility.

“They need to have bush legs,” says firefighter Brian Davis. He and Adam Templeman were two of the instructors guiding the young hopefuls through the Junior Fire Crew training on Tuesday, at Rosedale Traditional Community School. The week-long program is a collaboration between the Chilliwack School District and the BCWS. At the end of the training, two of the 11 students will be offered a chance to interview with BCWS and be hired on for summer forest-fighting work.

Those who aren’t chosen immediately will still have a chance to apply next year, and could be called on this year if the demand is there.

But wildfire fighters are not all about the brawn. They need brains, too. Mapping fires, knowing their own locations, communicating with operation centres and assisting in forecasting fire activity are crucial to a successful operation.

So the training, which happens in communities across the province in various forms, is a mix of simulations and classroom knowledge. The Chilliwack students have already had ride-alongs with the Chilliwack Fire Department, have received their dangerous goods tickets, WHMIS, and Occupational First Aid Level 1. Altogether, they’ll have put in 100 hours of work, earned four credits for graduation and had training in interviewing skills, resume writing and more.

This seven-day ‘camp’ is the final stage of that training. On Tuesday, the students learned orienteering with both GPS and an old-school compass. After a physically tough morning, they headed out into the sunshine on an orienteering exercise around the school grounds. First back to base were Gerrit Lindhout and Maxwell Bergin, both 17.

“This is a future I’d like to get into,” says Bergin. His ride-along with the fire department happened to be during a serious call out to an arenacross event at Heritage Park where a rider was seriously injured.

“It was definitely a shock to be thrown into it,” he says, but it also helped solidify in his mind that he is on the right track.

Chilliwack School District’s work experience coordinator Chris Reitsma says the kids chosen for the program are all very driven, academically strong and athletes.

“We had a fairly extensive screening process,” Reitsma says, noting the program takes up half of their spring break. “That really shows their dedication.”

Orin Caddy, from BCWS, says that part of the program’s aim is to show kids how to be a better version of themselves. It’s the peer-to-peer leadership that takes place that helps instill the confidence they’ll need to succeed in such a demanding job.

“This is a new phase in their lives,” he said. “There is an expectation you will become a better version of yourself.”

That’s why they choose younger forest firefighters like Davis and Templeman to lead the courses. When kids can see the course leaders are closer in age, they’re more likely to envision themselves in that role and set goals for their own careers.

Davis says he was in his first year of university intending to study kinesiology.

“But I started this the year I graduated (high school) and I got hooked,” he said. “It’s awesome. A lot of the time you’re flying into fires, into places you wouldn’t normally see.”

He’s since returned to school, at BCIT, for a degree in forestry.

For Templeman, getting into wildfire fighting was a natural progression. His dad worked in a role similar to Caddy’s, on Vancouver Island. And even growing up around firefighters, he knows how hard it is for young people to commit to this kind of career.

“For me, it was proving to myself I could pass the fitness test,” he said. “It’s really good to see the kids pushing themselves out here.”

For the B.C. Wildfire Service, the benefit of the foundational program is that they have a ready and willing crew in communities should the need arise.

“Having those contacts in the community is essential,” Caddy says. “You never know what (an emergency) is going to look like until it’s happening.”

And while they run the program in 24 other locations, Caddy says working with the Chilliwack School District has been top notch.

“The infrastructure has been turnkey,” he says. “It’s been so simple. Phenomenal.”

And the big bonus for students? The course came at the cost of just $150. Reitsma and Caddy held information sessions previously for students and their parents to learn more about the program.

In addition to a team of permanent staff which includes safety and training personnel, wildfire and fuel management experts, support and administrative staff, the BC Wildfire Service employs approximately 1,600 seasonal personnel each year. About 1,000 of those are wildfire fighters.

To learn more about making wildfire fighting a career goal, visit them online through the provincial government’s website. To find out about other work experience opportunities, Chilliwack students can speak to their counsellor at school who will connect them with the Career Education Department.


@CHWKcommunity
jpeters@theprogress.com

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Megan Hellam and Brian Davis adjust her compass for a training exercise. Jessica Peters/ The Progress

Gerrit Lindhout gives instructor Brian Davis a fist bump after successfully finishing a training exercise. Jessica Peters/ The Progress

Katie Murphy (left) and Megan Hellam get help from wildfire fighter Brian Davis before setting out on an orientation exercise. Jessica Peters/ The Progress

Jackson Kinneman gets assistance from Orin Caddy to simulate the weight of a wildfire fighter’s gear for their physical fitness test. (Submitted photo)

Maxwell Bergin (left) goes over a training exercise with wildfire fighting instructor Adam Templeman (centre) and his fellow trainee Gerrit Lindhout. Jessica Peters/ The Progress

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