A small group of Chilliwack high school students now know the ins and outs of fighting wildfires after an intense, week-long training camp.
Ten kids from Chilliwack Secondary, Sardis Secondary and G.W. Graham spent the second week of their spring break learning all about forest fires during the Junior Fire Crew work experience program.
It’s a camp offered by BC Wildfire Service and the Chilliwack school district. The program has been offered throughout the province with other school districts for years, but this was only the second time it was held here – the first being back in 2019.
“It’s a pretty elite opportunity,” said Chris Reitsma, work experience coordinator with the school district. “These kids are basically doing a very compressed version of the onboarding training that they would do for any junior firefighter coming into BC Wildfire.”
From March 20 to 24, the Grade 11 and 12 students learned everything from navigation to communications, fire entrapment avoidance to wilderness survival skills, helicopter safety to technical aspects like pumps and hoses, plus WHMIS training (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) and the transportation of dangerous goods.
All of the students also did a gruelling fitness test that week and pre-training back in February which consisted of two full days of first aid.
They are “absolutely loving it,” Reitsma said.
“The feedback has been wonderful, hugely positive. Folks from BC Wildfire have been super engaged, the kids are really into it. They’re having a great time.”
The Progress caught up with the students on March 25 at Cultus Lake Fire Base, one of BC Wildfire Service’s locations. It marked the last day of camp where they spent the entire time out in the field being tested on all they learned earlier that week.
It was a physically challenging day. They ran fire hoses from a creek up Vedder Mountain, ran through an obstacle course, and trekked up the trails carrying backpacks filled with hoses, jerry cans and pumps.
“At any given time, forest firefighters carry a minimum of 40 to 50 pounds all the time,” Reitsma said.
And that’s often being hauled through thick terrain as the fire crews cut pathways with a hatchet as they go.
“In reality, you don’t have manicured trails in the forest… so the fitness aspect is really, really important.”
Most people drive right by the Cultus Lake Fire Base without even knowing it’s there. Hidden behind the evergreens lining Columbia Valley Highway, the BC Wildfire Service building is tucked away at the bottom of Vedder Mountain.
They have a team of 20 and are called the Fraser Unit Crew. There’s one full-time member and the rest are part-time contract workers who are there during fire season, which can be anywhere from late-February to the end of November.
But they don’t just fight fires, they also work on trails and do flood response like filling sandbags.
“We’re moving towards all hazards… if they need people to do the heavy lifting, they call us,” said Krista Ruby, crew leader at Cultus Lake Fire Base.
For some of the kids, the goal of completing the Junior Fire Crew work experience program is to eventually be hired by BC Wildfire Service.
“Two of the grade 12 students will be identified for paid work for the summer with BC Wildfire Service,” Reitsma said.
In 2019, two Chilliwack teens were hired from the Junior Fire Crew camp and spent the summer working for BC Wildfire Service.
Reitsma said it’s a great program because it helps the wildfire service with their recruitment, but it’s “fantastic” from a career education perspective as well.
“We’re giving them a genuine insight into what a day in the life of a forest firefighter is like.”
They might not want to become a forest firefighter, but they can certainly apply the skills they’ve learned to other potential careers such as becoming an emergency medical technician or structural firefighter.
“The two students that were hired in 2019 for the summer, one of them is still with BC Wildfire and actually came back and delivered a lesson to this camp, so it’s coming full circle,” Reitsma said. “That’s a point of pride.”