Fighting the Hot Summer Flames – An Interview with Fire Fighter and UBC Forestry Graduate Julie Sheppard
Author: Meike Siegner
Picture: Julie Sheppard
Julie Sheppard, a recent graduate from the Faculty of Forestry (University of British Columbia), currently works as a firefighter in the interior of the Canadian Western Province British Columbia. For the Tree News, Julie told us about her experience fighting the flames in the Canadian woods.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to work as a firefighter?
I personally learned about this opportunity from a friend of mine. She was like “Hey, you would love this. It is the perfect job for you!”. So when I finished my undergrad program and didn’t really have anything set up, I applied and got a job with the Burns Lake Unit Crew. Burns Lake is a rural village in the North-Central Interior of British Columbia. 2015 was my first season with them and then I took last year off when I started my Master’s at UBC. But this summer I am back with the same crew and on the same spot for 4 months. This is how long students usually get hired for. It is really one of these jobs where you tend to become part of a community of peers that engage in the same activities. Especially among forestry students in Canada, it seems a very popular thing to do. Some would even go abroad and work with the firefighters in Australia. Canada and Australia have a common agreement in place to share forces if there is need. So, some people’s reaction when I tell them about my job would be like “Oh yes, I know someone who does that, too!”, while others would be astonished, not knowing that is a job that students could do.
What training did you receive before starting the job?
It is sort of a one-time thing before you get the actual job. They send you to a boot camp and at the camp you learn all the skills needed to become a firefighter. It is nine days of hard work and at the same time the instructors at the boot camp are crew supervisors or crew leaders around the province, who then pick the candidates which they think would fit their crew well. So you get trained there and after that you get called by a crew that offers you the job. And then you really continue learning and training when you’re at your crew. It is really ongoing training that we receive on the job. They would offer, for example, a chain saw training. So I did that one. The only thing you have to do every year before you come back to work is a fitness test.
How do your weeks look like while being on the job?
We just live in town. I share an apartment with one other girl of my crew. Right now we have a few days off. We just got back from fourteen days of working. Our shifts can be extremely variable. It all depends on the fire situation. We had some local fires that we did just for four days where we would come home in the evenings, prepare our own food and head back to the fire the next morning. But for the so called “project fires”, which are bigger in scope and intensity, we would be in a camp for fourteen days straight. And there we might end up working sixteen hour days or longer, depending on the situation. When sent to a camp we’d usually sleep in our tents and they would provide catering trailers and washrooms and such. Sometimes they also send us to hotels. The logistics and set-up in the firefighter camps is organized by a professional company. And after two weeks, we get some days off. During these days we mostly hang out in Burns Lake. There is lots of fishing up here and lakes where we go kayaking and swimming. Burns Lake is really small. There is not a ton going on. So people do lots of outdoor activities and usually spend time with their crew members. I like it up here. It’s not just a job, it’s really a life style.
What are the skills that you need in order to do this job?
It is mostly about being outdoorsy and hard-working. Even if you don’t know a lot about forests, you can learn the skills pretty quickly. As long as you are hard-working, able to stand long days, and remain cool-headed in tense situations, you can be good at the job. They really like forestry students who are used to being in the field and working in teams with others. Which makes sense. I am part of a twenty people unit crew and we pretty much work like a sports team. We have our supervisor and also crew leaders who delegate smaller teams. So there are strict hierarchies in place which I think It is pretty important when there is an emergency situation.
What do you like about the job and what are major take-away from this experience?
What I really like about it is being outside all day. Even if it is not the greatest day, I still feel lucky to spend so much time in the nature. And it is actually quite rewarding when you get to a fire and manage to put it out. Especially when it is close to communities. It is a good feeling to know that you really made a difference for those people’s lifes. Another great part is the team environment and working toward objectives together. I think it is actually a good skill that firefighting teaches you. To determine objectives and achieve them while being on the fire site. Even if they give you just little tasks. Within our team every task contributes to a larger whole and helps us achieve our goals. And then for me, as someone who is going to be a forest professional, there are many things I can learn just by walking through the woods. Forecasting the weather is one example or learning about different fuel types. Also, fighting a fire in the Interior Douglas Fire zone, for example, is very different from on in the Sub Boreal Spruce zone. I really enjoy learning more about forestry as part of the job.
Would you like to take this experience further?
I do feel that the job kind of hooks you in. There are actually some opportunities for people who do have a forestry background to make a career out of this. For example, as a fuel management specialist for one of the private service companies in the north of the Province. These are organizations that I could see myself potentially staying in. I am actually thinking about extending my current contract until the end of September. This year is quite an intense season, which is why more people are needed toward fall also.
The author, Meike Siegner, is editor in chief of the Tree News and currently pursues her doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia. Contact: meike.siegner(a)gmail.com