July 18th, 2018

Hatter back from fighting B.C. fires

By Tim Kalinowski on August 12, 2017.

Image of Hatter Connor Thomas at the front lines of the B.C. wildfires.--SUBMITTED PHOTO


Hatter Connor Thomas just returned from 17 days fighting the wildfires in B.C.’s interior.

Thomas, who has spent the past three seasons with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Wildfire Services, says his experience in British Columbia at the Elephant Hill Provincial Park fire southeast of Cache Creek has given him a nagging dry cough and a new perspective on things.

“When you are in the fire zone, you are in a whole different world,” he says. “You just spent 17 days living in an evacuated area where there is not much traffic or many people around. There was no one but us and the fire. But you have a job to do and that’s all you are thinking about. You actually start dreaming about it.”

The days are long, the work is hard and physical, says Thomas, but you are also in a strange mental and spiritual place while in the midst of it all.

“A lot of us who do this job are actually quite de-sensitized to fire now. Like when I stand next to a tree that’s got flames shooting 50 feet above, I have seen it so often it doesn’t really scare me. You understand the power and scariness of it while you are there, but you have a lot of respect and trust in the experience of your crew leader and supervisors. To us, fire is a living thing, and there is a behaviour there you can understand if you have enough experience.”

Thomas came off the line four days ago and recently returned to Medicine Hat to relax, but he is stilling thinking about the fire.

“I didn’t see blue sky for 17 days,” he says. “I was almost a little bit shocked when I got back to Alberta, looked up and the sky was blue. I couldn’t look at the sun anymore. Every single day I was in B.C. I could look right at the sun, and the smoke was so thick you didn’t have to shield your eyes from it.”

Thomas works on a fire crew that specializes in setting up pumps and fire hose systems through rough terrain.

“The terrain is very hard to deal with,” confirms Thomas. “You are hiking up hills all day with heavy fire-retardent clothing on, and carrying all your water, lunch and the stuff you use in a day. We had to set up pretty complex systems, and it would usually take us at least a full day, a 14-16 hour day, to get the whole system set up so we can have water the next day.

“We were setting up a lot of delivery systems where you use a pump to deliver water to a bladder you have already hiked up the hill. You then shoot it up to another bladder further up the hill, and then up to another after that. We usually use a three bladder system just to get water up to the fire.”

Safety and awareness are extremely important when faced with hell on earth, confirms Thomas.

“The risk does run through your mind. But we are very highly trained when it comes to watch-out situations. Having a good sense of what the fire is doing at all times is extremely important. You really rely on your crew to watch out for themselves but also to watch out for others.”

Thomas says fighting an aggressive fire like the one on Elephant Hill is extremely frustrating on one level because every time you push it back, it simply re-ignites somewhere else. He says you have to focus on “the little victories” to get through it.

“There is a lot at stake, and a lot at risk; peoples’ houses and livelihoods. Everyone on my crew wants to be there and everyone wants to help out. So if you save a property or ranch seeing how happy those people are, and how appreciative they are you are there, is just such a big morale boost.”

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