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'I'm actually surprised': BC Wildfire Service sees big increase in firefighter applicants

The service says workers' mental health and well-being will be a top priority in 2024.

BC Wildfire Service had a record-breaking year for applications from people wanting to be firefighters. 

For the upcoming season, BCWS received 1,700 firefighter applications — nearly double last year's 860.

“I’m actually surprised,” says David Greer, director of strategic engagement at BC Wildfire Service. “It’s a big jump.”

The last time the service saw such interest was in 2003 when 2,000 people applied. Each year, BCWS has 1,600 to 2,000 firefighter employees. That number does not include initial attack, wildfire technicians, heavy equipment and line-locating teams. 

Greer credits opening the application window earlier and staggering it to the successful number of people applying. 

“That kind of goes along with the work we're doing... just improving things,” he says. 

Staffing numbers for the 2024 season are consistent with the last seven to 10 years, according to Greer. Roughly 200 firefighters are turning over and leaving the organization from last year, he tells Glacier Media.

Service making well-being, mental health a top priority

When speaking with the firefighters, the main concern he’s heard is fatigue and cumulative fatigue. Some members worked into November in 2023 or stayed on as extensions. 

Many of them are “built differently” than others, says Greer. They spend their time working in difficult situations, under stress and sleeping in a tent. 

"They want to be out there doing it for the most part, but you know, sometimes they may not even know their own limits,” he says, adding the culture within the organization is shifting to focusing on well-being and mental health, and checking in proactively. 

“We have to take care of them."

BC Wildfire Service has an occupational health program, where physiotherapists are on-site at camps. It also has a robust mental health program, notes Greer.

“We always encourage people to do that,” he says. “Probably this year, we will utilize those services more than other years." 

B.C. had the most destructive wildfire season ever recorded in the province’s history in 2023. More than 2.84 million hectares burned, tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate and hundreds of homes and structures were either lost or damaged. 

Last season was also when six B.C. wildfire fighters tragically died. BC Wildfire Service says Devyn Gale, Zak Muise, Kenneth Patrick, Jaxon Billyboy, Blain Sonnenberg and Damian Dyson will always be remembered for serving and protecting the lands and people of British Columbia.

"It was a very heavy year and we're a very tight-knit organization and I think we all felt a responsibility,” says Greer.

When the fatalities happened, the Indigenous communities were always the first ones to reach out and wrap their arms around the service.

“That meant a lot to us. [They were] non-judgmental,” he says. I can’t tell you how much that means to us.” 

Firefighters are also mentally dealing with uncertainty when it comes to members of the public, adds Greer.

“They'll be in a community filling up their truck with gas or fuel, and they'll see a member of the public approaching them and they don't know what that interaction is going to be like. Is it going to be negative?”

Firefighters have also confided in Greer that they do check social media and negative comments do impact them.

“That's very difficult,” he says. “I worry about someone alone, going through social media and seeing a lot of outrage.”

Greer notes there are a lot of armchair experts that want to be heard. He understands they’re coming from a place of concern but it can have severe impacts on frontline members, he tells Glacier Media. 

Crew size to expand

Despite the high number of applications this year, two wildfire ecologists in B.C. say they’re concerned about staffing and retention.

After having such a long and difficult fire season last year, some crews spent 130 days on wildfires, says fire ecologist Robert Gray.

“That’s four and a half months on fires,” he says, adding long stretches can lead to burnout. “They haven’t recovered. We have attrition.”

Kira Hoffman, also a fire ecologist, has previously worked for BC Wildfire Service on an initial attack crew.

“Most of the conversations I've had with my colleagues are that they're still recovering from last summer. They fought fire well into October and they didn't quite get the break,” she says. "They needed the physical, mental break.”

Having an early fire season could put a lot of strain on the service, she says.

“Making sure that everyone is in a good place for the fire season, that training requirements have been met and that new recruits coming in are prepared for the potential fire that they're going to see,” says Hoffman. 

Back when she was a firefighter, wildfire behaviour was not the same. 

“They're going to be experiencing some potentially dangerous situations and dealing with a lot more potential interface fires and everything that comes with having a very long fire season, which can be very exhausting,” she says. 

BCWS says it is working to expand crew size from 20 to 22 to help with fatigue. 

“We're still trying to top up those numbers and same with initial attack. Used to be three packs, now they're four packs,” says Greer.

The bump in crew members allows those who are fatigued or need mental health support to take leave.

“That's why we're boosting up those numbers so you can actually do that,” says Greer. 

Early start to the fire season ‘likely'

Both ecologists admit predicting the upcoming season can have challenges and there is no crystal ball to look into the future, but there are signs it could be a difficult season. 

Gray is keeping a close eye on the snowpack and is waiting to see what happens in June. 

“If you're already starting from a deficit, then the only thing that can limit a fire season is the precipitation you get throughout the fire season,” he says. “If we don't have much precipitation in June, then, you know, statistically, July and August are very dry.”

In his words, if June is dry, then “we’re off to the races” for wildfires. 

"It's only a matter of ignitions,” he says.

Hoffman, too, is watching the snowpack and drought in B.C. Spring rain is important to help fill up reservoirs and provide plants with the water they need in order to not experience as much drought.

“They can respond much better to fire if they have a lot of moisture in their tissue,” she says. 

Gray has spoken to colleagues up north where, typically, the fire season starts first. 

“It’s windy and dry,” he says, adding those are the worst conditions for wildfires. 

On Feb. 20, Alberta declared an early wildfire season, 10 days earlier than normal. 

“We have a number of overwintering fires already: about 100 in B.C. and about 40 in Alberta,” Gray says. 

Hoffman says many of these fires are in the Canadian boreal forest, areas that are going to be problematic. 

“An early start to the fire season is likely,” she says. 

Hoffman says the whole province is on her radar as she’s looking at the upcoming fire season. She's also keeping an eye on Vancouver Island, which has experienced prolonged drought.

“It's just so difficult to tell,” she tells Glacier Media.

“For the experiences that we've had in the last seven or so years, I'm just always kind of bracing myself for a fire season, just because they are much more intense than they were in the past,” she says.