Quesnel Fire Zone firefighters and staff ready for action

Members of the Blackwater unit crew with equipment on a past fire. The Blackwater unit crew is based in Quesnel but will respond to fires throughout the province. (Contributed photo)Members of the Blackwater unit crew with equipment on a past fire. The Blackwater unit crew is based in Quesnel but will respond to fires throughout the province. (Contributed photo)
John Salewski, wildfire officer for the Quesnel Fire Zone, at the initial attack crew office near the airport in Quesnel. (Melanie Law photo)John Salewski, wildfire officer for the Quesnel Fire Zone, at the initial attack crew office near the airport in Quesnel. (Melanie Law photo)
Members of the Quesnel initial attack crew. The locally-based crew, which was established in 2021, is actively monitoring the area for smoke and fire. (Contributed photo)Members of the Quesnel initial attack crew. The locally-based crew, which was established in 2021, is actively monitoring the area for smoke and fire. (Contributed photo)

By Melanie Law

Special to the Observer

​​The weather in Quesnel has finally taken a summery turn, and residents have been rejoicing, enjoying more time outdoors in the sun. But as warmer weather approaches, in the back of the minds of many is the impending possibility of the wildfire season.

Perhaps no one is thinking of this more than John Salewski, the B.C. Wildfire Service wildfire officer for the Quesnel Fire Zone. Salewski, in fact, began thinking about summer 2022 back in November 2021, when the hiring and training process for the 2022 wildfire season began.

Salewski hires firefighters for two teams he heads in Quesnel: the 22-person Blackwater unit crew, which is a provincial resource, and a 17-person initial attack (IA) crew, which is based locally.

Once hired, individuals complete online training and attend intensive bootcamp-style training in southern B.C.

“A big, big part of our training program is running the chainsaw and getting people to be certified fallers,” says Salewski. To earn that certification, individuals need 180 days of falling experience. “It can take us a couple of years to get a certified faller under the program. So as soon as they walk in the door, we pretty much put a chainsaw in their hands and start going over the basics,” says Salewski. He says trainees also learn to drive all-terrain vehicles, make danger tree assessments, and administer first aid.

Along with the firefighting crews, Salewski heads a team of technicians and assistants in Quesnel who coordinate wildfire suppression efforts in the Quesnel Wildfire Zone. The Zone includes the City of Quesnel and District of Wells, as well as the territories of the ?Esdilagh, Nazko, and Lhtako Dené First Nations.

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“We’re run by the Cariboo Fire Centre in Williams Lake,” explains Salewski, who’s been in the Quesnel-based role since 2001. The Blackwater unit crew moved to Quesnel from Riske Creek in 2002 and has the potential to be forwarded to other provincial areas, whereas Quesnel’s initial attack (IA) crew largely remains local.

The IA crew was only established last year, and so far Salewski says it’s been a valuable resource. Its creation was a direct result of the findings of the 2018 report by George Abbott and Chief Maureen Chapman, Addressing the New Normal: 21st Century Disaster Management in British Columbia. The report recommended more local knowledge be incorporated into provincial wildfire response.

“[In the past,] we would always base IA crews in Williams Lake, and then we would move them to where the hazard was,” says Salewski. “But they don’t know the roads; they didn’t know where, say, the 500 Road is, or they didn’t know how to get to Kluskus…

“And so now, having our own local IA crews, the response is so amazing. And our stakeholders are seeing the benefit.”

The firefighters on the IA crew work on seven- to nine-month contracts, beginning in the spring and ending in the fall each year. Salewski says the position attracts a lot of university and college students, and there has been a fair amount of turnover in the team this year; whereas Salewski’s unit crew has been pretty stable since it was moved to the Quesnel area. “With our unit crew, they’ve been around for quite a few years. Out of the 20 people, we only had five leave and then we hired five this year out of the bootcamp. But the new initial attack crew, we’re still building that house.”

Salewski believes that the addition of more Quesnel or Cariboo residents to the team will help stabilize the crew in upcoming years. “It’s hard to bring people to smaller towns, and it’s just building that culture, you know. I want locals; we need to get more of those locals in there.”

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For the Blackwater unit crew, Salewski is proud of his efforts to hire from the local junior program, in particular. He brings in four high school-age members every summer. “They know what a mosquito looks like; they know how to set up a tent,” jokes Salewski. “We get those locals and this is so much more beneficial to our community than always importing somebody from the southern part of the province.”

When the unit crew isn’t fighting wildfires, it’s active in the community, building trails, visiting and maintaining recreational sites, and working on fuel management projects. The crews were recently working on clearing brush and flammable material at Hallis Lake. They’ve also done work in Kersley at the Sisters Creek trail to create a fuel break and at the Wonderland cycling and hiking trails. Salewski says his team has good relationships with local recreational groups, to create a “win-win”, where his team gains extra training, and the clubs and rec sites see the benefit of professional fuel management or trail cutting.

Along with the two crews, the province employs local fire wardens and has contracts with local First Nations. This, again, strengthens Salewski’s team’s local knowledge; and with such a big area, having boots on the ground in rural outposts is invaluable. Both of these programs came about after the 2018 Abbott/Chapman Report.

There are different levels of contracts with First Nations groups, says Salewski, which allow him to hire individuals to fight fires on their traditional territories. He says the ?Esdilagh First Nation holds a higher-level contract with the province, which can see their members sent anywhere in B.C. to aid in firefighting efforts.

And Salewski currently has five fire wardens for the Quesnel Fire Zone: two in Nazko, two in Wells, and one in Quesnel. They are available to do things like check reports of smoke, patrol rec sites, and educate the public on campfire bans. They have basic firefighting training from the B.C. Wildfire Service and they have radios to keep in contact, which Salewski says they see as essential.

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To illustrate the point, he describes an incident a few years ago, where there was a fire in the Titetown area, northwest of Quesnel, that local residents were fighting. “The tankers [firefighting aircraft] were overhead and the tankers were looking at the public fight the fire, and they’re like, ‘Whoa, the public’s doing really good. We don’t need to drop.’ And then the public saw the tankers and they pulled out. And so then the fire started to get big. … And so that’s why we needed somebody on the ground with the radio. That’s why we brought back the fire warden program. It’s just so helpful to have local knowledge out there.

“If I get a smoke report out on the 3,900 Road,” he continues, “It’s way easier for me to phone [a fire warden] and say, ‘Hey, can you jump in a truck and go check out that smoke report?’ than for me drive an hour and half, two hours, to go find smoke.”

Salewski is also proud of the partnerships he and his team have developed with local industry and community fire departments. “Everybody comes together and it’s really quite an amazing industry when things are bad. … With West Fraser, Tolko… those relationships are very important for the greater good. I need their heavy equipment. I need their support. I need their staff when there are really bad fires.” Salewski explains that with these partnerships, he can deploy logging sector employees to fires if they are the closest resource. “Everybody in forestry needs the S-100, which is the basic wildfire course. So they’re all required to have that out in the field and then we’ll just guide them for the more detailed aspects, the nuances.”

Salewski will also rely on Quesnel and area volunteer fire departments. “We don’t quibble over, ‘This is mine, or this is in my area,’” he says. “We’re going to put the fire out and we’re going to work together.” Salewski explains that once things are under control, the teams can look at the maps and hand the fire over to the crew that’s responsible.

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Salewski says it’s similar with people he employs to run heavy equipment for fire suppression. “We’re always looking for new contractors with heavy equipment, and we do really well with soliciting and bringing them in. We start that in March and during break up. And then we rotate through the list on standby.” But he assures that when an emergency situation strikes, “I’m going to use the closest best resource 10 times out of 10.”

With more on-the-ground local knowledge; First Nations and industry partnerships; a long list of heavy equipment operators on standby; and a solid operations team, Salewski seems confident as the potential fire season draws nearer. But the wildfire officer concedes that a fire season can’t be predicted, and he still gets nervous.

“My crystal ball has been broken for a lot of years, so it’s hard to tell. [For example], it was pretty wet last year until the heat dome showed up, and then it was a furnace in the province. But most fire seasons are made or broken in June. If we get June rains, we won’t have a catastrophic state of emergency, typically,” Salewski says, hopefully.

He stresses the important role the public plays in reporting unusual or suspicious smoke. The protocol for reporting is the same as in previous years – dial 1-800-663-5555, or *5555 from a cell phone. “That goes down to Victoria to the 1-800 centre, and then they kick it over here to the wildfire coordination centre in Williams Lake. And then we disseminated and respond from there,” says Salewski.

“Please report any smoke you see; don’t assume that somebody else has reported it,” he urges.

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: rebecca.dyok@quesnelobserver.com

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B.C. Wildfires 2022CaribooQuesnel