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Forest firefighters wrap up final training in Pemberton

Recruits must pass hover-exit manoeuvre from helicopter


It's a hot, dusty Friday at the end of the Pemberton airport where about 20 forest firefighters are gathered around two insect-like Bell helicopters.

Some are returning after having worked the previous summer in forest fires around the province. Some are new, but they are all here to learn — or recertify — on the hover-exit strategy, which is used when crews must access a fire on the ground but it can only be reached by helicopter.

Gracie Wilson, 21, is from Prince George and this is her second summer fighting fires. She must perform the entry and exit twice from the hovering helicopter, which barely moves as she climbs in and out. She is lithe, a natural fit to contort herself around the landing skids as the helicopter hovers just above the ground. When each manoeuvre is completed, each crew member scrambles to just in front of the helicopter as other members finish the drill.

This is one of the last training exercises for these B.C. Wildfire recruits before they are dispatched to their base. Kevin Cochrane, a forest protection technician and aviation specialist, works with Dan Harris and Justin Penney to split the training group, then watches as each member completes the drill.

Cochrane did this for more than 23 years before supervising the training.

"I was on the front line," he said. "I stopped not because I really wanted to — it was more a timing thing with jobs opening up in the organization. If I didn't try then, it might have been five or 10 years before another job came up.

"This is my office," Cochrane said as he gestures to the bucolic Pemberton Valley.

Cochrane started fighting fires when he was 19. "I just loved it. The work is certainly demanding," he said.

"It's interesting in our organization," said Cochrane. "A lot of people stay around for a long period of time." He explained that it's a well-paying job, and the seasonal work appeals to those who do something else in winter, particularly in ski resorts.

"People seem to be more accepting of three or four or five careers now," he said.

For Wilson, who grew up in Prince George and whose family owns a forestry company, it felt right. "It's such a fun job," she said, adding that previous experience helps, whether it's tree planting, or any work that is forestry-related.

For Tarun Ghose, growing up in Pemberton it seemed the natural fit to fight fires, although he didn't get accepted on his first try.

"I prepared for almost two years," he said. "There are so many applicants."

Once an applicant is accepted, there is still boot camp to get through, which typically begins every day at 6 a.m. for full-day classes at a facility in Merritt.

"You're at boot camp for nine days — you're giving it your all," said Ghose. "You have to show them why they should hire you."

"You go to bed early," said Wilson.

Forest-fire season alert

With wildfires already raging across the country and even in the province, the Coastal Fire Centre (CFC) has announced measures to keep similar disasters from happening here.

Beginning at noon on Friday, May 13, all Category 2 open fires will be banned in most areas of the CFC's jurisdiction.

A Category 2 open fire is defined as one to two "concurrently burning piles no larger than 2 metres high by 3 metres wide" or "stubble or grass burning over an area less than 0.2 hectares," according to the BC Wildfire website. As well, fireworks, firecrackers, sky lanterns, burning barrels or burning cages are not allowed, as are binary exploding targets for such uses as rifle target practice.

The ban is in effect in all B.C. parks, Crown lands and private lands within the CFC's jurisdiction aside from an area on Vancouver Island's outer coast and the Haida Gwaii Forest District.

Campfires smaller than a half-metre high by a half-metre wide are not restricted by the ban. Cooking stoves using gas, propane or briquettes are also allowed. People starting a campfire must remove "flammable debris" from the campfire area and must also either have a hand tool or at least eight litres of water with which to extinguish the fire. Fires must also not be left unattended.

The CFC's jurisdiction includes much of the province's southwest quadrant including Pemberton, Whistler, Squamish, Vancouver, Victoria, Bella Coola, Hope and Abbotsford.

To report a wildfire, unattended fire or a violation, call 1-800-663-5555 or *5555 via cell phone.

For more information, visit

- Dan Falloon

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