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B.C. wildfire crews pack up camps as fierce season cools

·3 min read
Stefan Hood, logistics section chief with the B.C. Wildfire Service, is getting ready to pack up the Vernon camp which once held more than 500 firefighters battling the White Rock Lake fire that still spans over 8,000 square kilometres. (Dana Kelly/CBC - image credit)
Stefan Hood, logistics section chief with the B.C. Wildfire Service, is getting ready to pack up the Vernon camp which once held more than 500 firefighters battling the White Rock Lake fire that still spans over 8,000 square kilometres. (Dana Kelly/CBC - image credit)

A hint of autumn cold clings to the air in this Vernon wildfire camp, a welcome change from the throat-choking smoke that hundreds of firefighters endured over summer.

"You're catching us at the back end of what was a very busy time here," Stefan Hood, logistics section chief with the B.C. Wildfire Service, told CBC Daybreak South's Dana Kelly, as she toured the old Kin Racetrack grounds.

Surveying the remaining tents scattered around three baseball fields that were once filled with people and equipment, Hood is still surprised by the size and scope of response.

"Right now, we're pretty much sitting around 130 people in the camp, which is just sort of a fraction of what we had, at one time upwards of 520 people."

The B.C. Wildfire Service is preparing to pack up the camp and others across the province, as a fierce wildfire season winds down.

More than 3,800 personnel helped fight some 1,600 wildfires this year, and 8,680 square kilometres of land was burned.

Few were as devastating as the nearby White Rock Lake Wildfire, now the lone wildfire of note remaining in B.C. It is still burning, but under control.

Sparked by lightning on July 13, the blaze quickly grew to 833 square kilometres, ripping through Monte Lake on its eastern flank and destroying some 80 homes to the west along the shores of Okanagan Lake.

Hood helped find and build this camp within three days as a 24-hour hub for resources, first aid, and much-needed sleep for an army of emergency workers.

He's been doing this for 14 years, each summer camp a homecoming of a kind.

"It's very rewarding to see the same people at fire camps year after year. You develop quite a bit of camaraderie in these high intensity, short duration, events. Though short duration is changing I suppose."

Starting early and growing rapidly in number and intensity, 2021 is the third worst fire season in B.C. history. Only 2017 and 2018 have seen more destruction in terms of area burned.

Dana Kelly/CBC
Dana Kelly/CBC

"It's been long ... it's been a hard summer," said Hannah Swift, a fire information officer who joined the B.C. Wildfire Service as a crew member in 2017.

"The White Rock Lake Fire did impact a huge amount of people and displaced a lot of people and affected a lot of communities."

But she credits those same communities for finding resiliency and supporting the crews fighting the fires.

"It's been incredible to see the local support of the community come out," she said.

Dana Kelly/CBC
Dana Kelly/CBC

Stefan Hood's last task is to turn this camp back to baseball diamonds for the Vernon Community.

"We're not going to be here for very much longer. I think that in just a few days we're going to see a lot of activity here at the camp," he said.

Trucks, tents, and tons of gear will be moved, as crews follow the old wilderness ethic of "leave no trace."

But just as this fire season has charred the landscape, its response has had an impact on those who fought it.

"[They're] what we call friends and family now," Hood said of the local and foreign colleagues getting ready to leave.

"I certainly think its good news from our perspective as firefighters, when we get to go home to our families after months of being away."

The B.C. Wildfire Service is already reviewing this season's action and preparing for 2022.

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