By Mike Gauthier
If you want something in your life, put your mind to it and go for it. You can accomplish it.
I am sitting around with my brothers, hearing stories about fighting wildfires. Hey! This could be the way to fill my dreams of riding a helicopter, being on a fire line. I go to the BC Forest Service Office to find out what I need.
They tell me I need a first aid ticket, and to pass the forest fire fighter exam. I need 90% to pass. I learn chemistry, I learn trucks signage, I learn what fuels burn the fastest.
I sit the exam. I pass them both; I am a forest fire fighter!
Not long later, I get a phone call from an employment office called Manpower. They inform me that I need to be at BC Forest Service at 4am in the morning. It is time.
The fire is north of Cranbrook, on one of the wild horse tributaries at the base camp on the east fork.
We get our orders to be at the building heliport. I climb in with the rest of the crew. It is a different way of seeing the landscape through the helicopter windows. Me and the boss are coming out from camp, and the heavy equipment is on its way in.
We see orange flashing lights and the big bold grill of a cab over staring at us. We have no choice, we put the truck in the ditch. If I roll down the window, I can touch the blade of the D8 CAT. Spooky.
Day and day go by, fire still rages. My body is covered head to toe in black; the only white you can see are my teeth and eyes. I see the skidders digging themselves into the mountain, climbing up to put the fire out. The smoke is so thick they have to reverse the fans on their motors. I am operating the pump; digging with the hose. Water splashes back all over me. Again, I am drenched and dirty.
Still, more days go by. I am in camp to grab some things. I hear something sounding like standing behind a F18 fighter. The truck comes in hell bent. Let’s grab everything and get the heck out of here! She’s coming up on an old burn. We move to a new camp on Wild Horse River. The fire is out of control. Cedar stumps create their own tornado; we keep at least 500ft away.
Green trees blow up like bombs going off. They put us into the lake and we watch the chopper making his runs with the bucket. The radio comes alive; “We’re coming to pick you up”. We watch the helicopter and watch for the pilot’s hand signals. The chopper lands and we get in and the pilot yells “Hang on boys!” It’s like a Saturday night on the zipper. I grab the sides with no door.
We drop down 200-300ft in an air pocket; large wildfires create their own turbulence. Complete silence, the only thing I can hear is my heart beating.
Days and days go by. I steal moments of sleep where I can, when the radio isn’t squawking. Then, I hear them. The retardant bombers are coming! I look up and I see the birddog checking out the territory.
I hear warbling siren from the birddog. It is laying a path for the bomber. If you’re under the siren in the drop zone it is too late, hit the ground face down.
And still, the fire burns on. Fires turn boys into men.