The scene of an active fire looks totally different from the vantage point of a helicopter. Leslie Blaszk hangs in suspension in the sky, waiting to rappel down to fight the flames. In these moments spent dangling above the tree canopy, she’ll have no idea what to expect from this latest British Columbia forest fire. Maybe it’ll be an easy win, maybe not. The hope is that everything will come together and the crew will move seamlessly like a well-oiled machine.
When fighting forest fires, you just never know what you’re going to get. In mid-air pause, she surveys the fire from a bird’s-eye view. It’s a suspenseful moment waiting for her cue to drop into the trees. That’s one of her favourite parts of the job. “I like it, it’s fun,” says Blaszk. “I always get excited rappelling. One of the biggest things is sitting in suspension as we wait for them to signal us.” When she gets that signal, away she goes down towards the orange glow.
Blaszk is one of more than 3,600 firefighters who have been working tirelessly this season to quench the flames that have burnt parts of Canada to a crisp. This season has been the worst since a brutal one in 2018 warranting help not just from Canada’s provinces and territories, but internationally with firefighters coming from Mexico and as far as South Africa.
Well into September, national reports note that the number of fires currently burning and the total area burnt this year is above average. BC has been hit particularly hard: the CBC reported it has been the third worst year on record in terms of area burnt. Wildfires in the province have left more than 8,686 square kilometres charred so far. This is a season that prompted a province-wide state of emergency. Its most well-known victim was the town of Lytton which was turned to ash in late June.
The people waging war over Mother Nature’s most destructive element continue around the clock. Being a wildfire fighter is thrilling and exciting; there’s a rush. But there’s also a sense of never knowing what’s going to happen or how a fire is going to play out. (Large-scale fires create weather patterns of their own and can jump or switch direction at a moment’s notice.) Sometimes, that can leave firefighters totally spent. It’s both awe-striking to be venturing through untouched forest while doing this essential job and it’s a test only the most durable can pass.
Blaszk started her work on a large unit crew in Alberta. Her first fire was the famous Fort McMurray blaze in 2016. From there, she worked on smaller initial attack crews putting out fires in Alberta, BC, Ontario and Montana. After that, she trained to rappel into some of the most remote spots and was deployed to California last year. She has been rappelling from helicopters into burning wilderness for three years now. This season, she worked on an all-female crew entering remote spots in Golden, Nelson, Revelstoke, Cariboo and Salmon Arm from the sky. “The one thing I look at when I do firefighting is the hard work that goes into it,” says Blaszk. “There’s something really fulfilling about walking off a line or getting picked up from a helicopter and taking pride in knowing the effort we put in.”
Once hitting the ground, they get moving. They have to locate a water source and establish safety zones and escape routes. They’re cutting trails to the fire, removing materials and fuel from the fire’s edge into the green to stop it from proceeding. There’s burnoff operations like the one Blaszk did in Golden this season which is an incredibly fast-paced controlled burn of fuel. A lot of the work is preventative. Sometimes rappel firefighters are actually on the scene to aid in emergency situations too. In the event that a firefighter gets injured, it’s they who prepare and accompany them up into the helicopter.
“Once you’re on the ground of a rappel fire, you’re staying on that fire until it’s out,” says Blaszk. “It’s kind of like your little outdoor camping experience for a few days.” For that little outdoor camping adventure you get two bags: the bags of essentials that would allow you to survive for 48 hours in an emergency (food, tent, sleeping bag, water) and the bag of gear for the job (chainsaw and fuel, tools, gas for your pump). All told, that can weigh up to about 215 pounds. A rappel firefighter has to weigh less than 175 pounds themselves.
To say that this is a tough, demanding job is a massive understatement. So how can the public—and specifically outdoorsy types—do their part? It sounds almost too simple, but it starts with situational awareness. Recognize fire bans for why they exist. “If there are fire bans, it’s for a reason. It’s not to prevent people from enjoying the outdoors, it’s to stop these large scale fires,” she says. Know where they are and respect them. Get clear on restricted areas where the public isn’t allowed to venture. Sure, it’s not great to have to sacrifice hiking that bucket-list trail, but ignoring (or being ignorant of) these restrictions results in an unnecessary and easily avoidable headache for already exhausted firefighters who have been working under extreme conditions all season.
When record-breaking heat has the landscape as parched as it is, so many of our outdoor spaces have become like kindling just waiting for a spark to catch fire. That spark is often caused by lightning… but it’s often also caused by us. As Blaszk points out, we know that about half of all wildfires are caused by people. That’s the ash from your cigarette. That’s the campfire you thought you fully put out but didn’t. It’s your overheated dirt bike. And for cabin and property owners, your due diligence could prevent a large-scale fire from searing your property and your neighbour’s. Trim your trees, store firewood where it won’t add to existing hazards, remove anything that could be fuel to flames, drench the ground. “I think for outdoorsy people, just respect the land during these seasons,” says Blaszk.
Given that fighting fires happens in the literal wilderness, so many Canadians probably have no idea what goes into protecting and fending for our forests. When millions of hectares burn and hot flames cremate the spaces where we hike, run and camp, someone has to stand on that front line. That’s a feat not to be taken lightly. “The main thing that’s overlooked is that at this time of year and this season, we’re missing out on a lot of things,” says Blaszk. “Sometimes you might not see your partner or loved ones for 20 days.”
With rappel firefighting, you come face-to-face with what you’re saving. That’s probably why when Blaszk talks about the fires where the flames outdo their efforts, her frustration and discouragement is apparent. Dangling in mid-air, there’s a moment of expectation management before hitting the ground. It’s a sense of knowing that it could go her way... but it won’t always.
On a summer day in Kinbasket, Blaszk whirred on a notably fast rappel down from the helicopter and through the tree canopy. When she hit the ground, she noticed the large timber. In front of her, a cute little hummingbird flapped its wings. “With rappelling, you get to be in places that no other human being has been,” she says. “It’s the little things. It’s like wow, I’m somewhere where people would dream about camping and it’s just quiet.” It’s satisfying knowing that a place like this is accessible only to those who give it their all to defend it, but it’s also bittersweet knowing what’s at stake.
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