On base, as part of the Penticton Initial Attack three-man wildfire crew, I sharpen my chainsaw. It’s dry and hot on this day — July 17, 2018. On the tarmac, a usually reliable Eurocopter “A-Star B2” five-seat helicopter is ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
The machine’s call sign, in big red lettering, reads DWJ. The letters glint in the sun on its door panel and belly. The pilot is no doubt close by in the hanger, easing his nerves with yet another cup of coffee. The previous fire season burned a record-breaking 1.2 million hectares. Weather patterns and drought codes hint to another busy summer.
The helicopter has loyally been used by Penticton Initial Attack since its inaugural year in 1982. The machine, so ingrained in the culture, those crew belt buckles, and red wildfire shirts wear the outline of a helicopter as a crest. The A–Star is popular among crews as it can carry 2,300 kilograms and cruise upwards of 115 knots. My crew, H54, is first up, ready to go on the machine.
Already packed into the A-Star is a complement of forest fire fighting gear. Our personal line bags, allowing us to be self-sufficient anywhere on the fire, fill the fibreglass cubbies in the rear. The bags are filled with a few necessities: a hose, nozzles, drinking water, and sustenance. Everyone’s bag is personalized, shaped through their own experiences. Each fire is different and unforgiving, lessons learned the hard way.
Our crew leader’s saw is nestled in a saw bag with spare chains, tools, and chaps. The bag sits in a metal basket bolted to the outside the helicopter. Beside the bag is a small jerry can of 50:1 fuel ratio. A small pump rounds out the collection of gear. Limited storage and weight restrictions are at the achilles heel of the helicopter. We arrive quickly though, hopefully in time to put out the fire before it grows too big.
I stand at a bench inside the base compound with a round saw file. I hone the edge of each tooth on the chain again. I like my chainsaw sharp. Out in the forest, the lives of a crew can depend on it. A minimum of two escape routes are a must, and it is the sawyer’s job to create a corridor through forests, bushes, and blow-downs.
Hotel-51, our sister’s three-man crew, is 50 kilometres south on standby, straddling the American border with their heavy-duty two-tonne truck—no doubt sneaking a dip in the Canadian side of Osoyoos Lake. Any potential beach party plans are shelved when Hotel-51’s “lightning strike” phone apps display a series of red dots.
The dots, confirmed lightning strikes, freckle the southeast part of our zone along the Northern Cascades mountain range, running up from Washington State into southern British Columbia.
Hotel-51 jumps in their truck and heads east, unbeknown that embers smoulder in scores of the blasted tree trunks. The app doesn’t show that the strikes are dry lightning; there is no accompanying rain to dampen things down. No precipitation in these thunder clouds. At least none they gave up.
My saw perfected, a crackling voice scatters over the compound. Hotel-51 is on the radio.
“Penticton Base,” says the crew leader, “this is Hotel-51, we’ve got a fire, and it’s inaccessible by truck.”
I put my saw away, ready if needed, and lace up my boots.
My three-man crew is on the run across the tarmac as the pilot puts ignition to the rotary blades. Already out of breath, we three get ourselves sorted and seated. We put on our headsets.
Seated beside the pilot is our crew leader and 20-year wildfire veteran, Joel Rudyk. He is on the repeater channel: “Kamloops Fire Center, this is Delta Whiskey Juliet.”
“Delta Whiskey Juliet, this is Kamloops Fire Center, go ahead.”
“You can check Delta Whiskey Juliet with Hotel-54 complete—Alpha, Bravo, Charlie—departing Penticton airport to the new incident in the Cascades. We have a payload of 756 pounds. Will contact you in 30 or when landing.”
“Copy that Delta Whiskey Juliet. Talk to you in 30 or landing… Kamloops Fire Center clear.”
Seated in front of me, Joel’s worn and frayed red BC Wildfire issue shirt suggests how long he’s been in the business. To his right, the pilot flicks switches and pushes buttons. To my immediate right sits Ryan Sutcliffe. His tall frame, like most of our gear, fits awkwardly into the helicopter. With a combined total of four years of service, Ryan and I are bona fide greenhorns.
The pilot pulls up on the collective, a thrust lever positioned like an emergency brake, and steers forward with the cyclic stick, a joystick positioned between his legs. We are in the air.
We swing south. At the end of the runway, the beautiful Skaha Lake shore slips below us. We gaze down at strolling sun-worshipers, feet sinking in the deep golden sand as they stake out the best plot for the day. They have miles of good choices.
Inside the fuselage of the A-Star, the crew is lulled by the hum of rotors and sporadic radio chatter. We glide along like a car on black ice, a sensation that keeps my eyes fixated on the horizon and a motion sickness bag within easy reach.
Within 15 minutes, the Northern Cascades rise up above the tree line to greet us, the helicopter seeming to struggle against our physical weight. Perhaps it’s my imagination. I strain my eyes in search of landmarks.
I begin to worry. What if I left something behind?
What if I didn’t properly close the fragile and expensive helicopter compartment doors that hold some of the gear? (Every routine helicopter debrief has the crew reminded of just how fragile and expensive helicopter doors are).
Two hundred metres below, smokes signal numerous small fires on the mountain range. Foot pedals control the pitch of the tail rotor blades, allowing the pilot to hover and swivel 360 degrees. Here, old forest growth still dots the landscape. These “generals” as we call them are inaccessible and have avoided the logger’s chainsaw for over 100 years.
We circle the smokes, completing fire reports and relaying the information back to Kamloops Fire Center. Where to land? What to attack? What escape routes? We size and rank. We coordinate.
Suddenly, an alarm sounds, and a red light flashes on the dashboard. We turn our attention to the pilot and watch for his reaction. Over the intercom, the pilot’s voice is calm. He enunciates clearly: “We’ve had a hydraulic mechanical failure and need to head back to Penticton base immediately.”
The pilot switches the radio to Penticton air traffic control: “Penticton YYF, this is Delta Whisky Juliet with Hotel-54 requesting clearance for emergency landing.”
“Roger that, Delta Whisky Juliet. What’s your status, please?”
“We’re 20 minutes out. We’ve lost our hydraulics and will be coming in running.”
I have no idea what that means.
The crew tenses as the truculent helicopter refuses to fully cooperate. The pilot strains to control the cyclic stick and the collective lever. The helicopter lurches, drops, and twists. To my left, Ryan is in obvious discomfort as the A-Star runs through its contortions. He catches my stare and shakes his head.
As the flight back to base drags on, the pilot repeatedly reassures us that all is well. He compares the situation to something we might understand: “It’s like driving a car without power steering.”
Yet, it appears more than that. His arms shake and his knuckles whiten as he muscles with the controls, no finessing here.
Skaha Lake comes into view, those enjoying the sun and refreshing cool water oblivious to our precarious situation. We come in low with a shallow approach to the runway. I could almost reach and pluck brightly coloured beach umbrellas out of the sand.
The circular landing spot with the large ‘H’ is apparently of no use to us now. Without the hydraulics, a graceful hover landing is just not possible. We skid on the grass parallel to the runway and come to rest.
We share high fives and pile out. I notice everyone making phone calls. I call home. “Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” says a familiar voice.
“Don’t think I’m going to be home for dinner.”
Careful with the expensive and fragile helicopter doors, we collect our gear and gather our nerves. The pilot runs to the hangar.
He returns with apologies, and words that he’s scored a new helicopter. The pilot knows all too well how far reputation goes in this industry. With every second on the ground, rotors at a standstill, money is lost. Fuelled and ready to fly, our new ride is an A-Star B3, apparently the least powerful bird in this Airbus flock.
Boarding this time around is done completely in silence. The crew is seemingly less enthusiastic than the pilot to give it another go. Back in the saddle, we are off with a new flight plan. Hotel-54 is to be dropped just north above the village of Naramata. Taking precedent over the Cascades, pricey homes and vineyards are in the path of an interface fire, where forest fuel meets man-made structure.
Joining us on the helicopter this time around is wildfire officer Jonathan Finlay. He will continue the reconnaissance mission to the Cascades once Hotel-54 is dropped.
Cutting over Okanagan Lake, we sit in the back of the helicopter, exhausted but with no soot or sweat to show for it. My eyes wander from my clean shirt, to my clean hands, then to the back of the pilot’s chair. The first flight of the day has left me still fighting back motion sickness.
Rising out of the lake, Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park is denuded and scarred, still showing the effects of its burning 15 years prior.
“That won’t burn again at least,” I think out loud. The crew nods in agreement.
The Naramata fire is burning above the old Kettle Valley Railroad, which looks to make a great anchor-point. That is unless winds pick up and send embers downhill, over us towards the village. The railroad was completed over 100 years ago by immigrant railroad workers who toiled in deadly dangerous conditions. It’s now a gentle-grade bicycle path. Hotel-54 also sees it serving as a decent fire-break, an area to initiate a fire-attack with excellent means of escape.
The rotor wash of the helicopter pushes against the tall spruce and Ponderosa pines. The trees resemble wheat swaying in a prairie breeze. The rotor wash creates “widow-makers” as weaker branches are snapped and hurled with javelin-like force. Working in big timber is often the most dangerous part of the job. High winds and rotor wash keep a firefighter’s situational awareness high.
The fire enjoys the fresh burst of air and violently licks at the dry timber in its ever-expanding circular path. The spectacle is mesmerizing from 30 metres above. Watching a flame flicker in at campfire can draw one in; watching a football-sized forest fire can activate a fight or flight response. But here we are, here to fight. The heat is intense.
We spot a place to touch down some 15 metres up from the fire. The pilot delicately hits his mark, his hydraulics apparently working. Joel and I jump out, rotors still spinning. We grab our digging tools and chainsaw. We crouch lower than we perhaps need to.
We need more gear, so Ryan stays with the helicopter after pulling the shorter straw. He’ll be dropped back at base before the helicopter continues on to the Cascades. He’ll then drive our truck to the fire via Naramata Road. For an hour, it’ll be the two of us battling the fire with hand tools.
Joel and I huddle with our gear near the nose of the helicopter and give the pilot the thumbs up. The wash of the rotors increases as the helicopter starts to rise. We stay crouched and watch with squinted eyes as the bird flies away into the clear blue Okanagan sky.
We turn our heads to the fire and grab our Pulaskis. Our day has just begun.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
After 3 years with B.C. wildfire, Jade Portwood was hired by Penticton Fire and Rescue. He will be finished with his probation in April of this year. Before a career in fire, he studied and played hockey in Alaska, Scotland, and New Zealand.
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