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Sooke Fire Rescue firefighters reflect on experiences battling B.C. wildfires

Two months after returning home firefighters share stories from their time in the Interior
Members of Sooke Fire Rescue who were deployed to the Interior to combat wildfires this summer. Left to right: Lowell Holmquist, Cam Norris-Jones, Carsen Holmquist, Heather Lane, Michelle Schultz, Brandon Knowles, Scott Rear. Missing -: Matt Barney and Hollie Krutz. (Contributed - Sooke Fire Rescue).

Nicole Crescenzi | Contributed

How do you decide which buildings to save and which buildings will burn?

It’s a decision firefighters must make quickly and one that can sit with them for years.

This is one of the questions members of the Sooke Fire Rescue face at their “diffusing process” meeting, six weeks after everyone returned from fighting wildfires in the B.C. Interior.

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For Assistant Chief Cam Norris-Jones, trying to put out fires when they’re small is a principle carried out literally and figuratively in his role and one that makes methods like a diffusing process pivotal to keeping team members healthy.

“Some members who aren’t married or don’t have kids or pets might not respond the same way as those who do,” he said. “Some people will be in leadership roles and hold different responsibilities.”

Regardless of their role or length of deployment, all members who served fighting wildfires go through the diffusing process. The department-led initiative is a group opportunity to discuss what was experienced and assess if more steps might be necessary to support department members.

This summer 10 members of Sooke Fire Rescue were sent alongside Metchosin Fire Department members to work primarily as structure protection crews, meaning they would set up sprinkler systems to protect buildings in towns throughout the province.

While combatting fires is enough pressure, this year’s crews felt even tighter restrictions.

“B.C. Wildfire was stretched thin,” Norris-Jones said. “COVID brought challenges about bringing resources in from out of province.”

This meant fire departments worked shoulder-to-shoulder with B.C. Wildfire crew members and had to make more tough calls than usual.

Norris-Jones said it was hardest to choose which buildings to save in communities that hadn’t yet been evacuated.

“You are welcomed onto their property, you learn their life story, about their kids and parents and how long you’ve been there, and you become emotionally attached,” he said.

“But there are times that their property is not defendable, and having to make and communicate those decisions … those are quite difficult and emotional times for our crew.”

Coming back afterwards and seeing the devastation is a double blow.

“It’s not robotic. We’re still human. It’s hard not to feel bad for the people in those communities and, of course, question ‘what if?’” Norris-Jones said.

Still, Norris-Jones said his crew was as prepared as possible since Sooke is prone to brush fires.

“All the training we do for our community exceeds what we need to have for B.C. Wildfire (standards).”

Sooke members did three deployments, each for a two-week cycle. While most did structure protection, some did work on a Type 3 Engine crew, using a small vehicle to access bush fires.

For Michelle Schulz, the chance to go was something she’d been waiting for since she began with Sooke Fire Rescue two years ago. She was first deployed to Boston Bar to relieve crews fighting the Lytton fire before moving to 100 Mile House.

“It was totally different from what I had expected. Going up there, I was terrified,” she said.

While she’d trained to do structural protection through the Sooke Fire Rescue, she’d never put it into action before and had to learn on the fly.

“Seeing an uncontrolled fire like that was a totally different experience than something like a house fire where you know you can contain it.”

Firefighter Brandon Knowles had been deployed twice before on engine crews in 2017 and 2018 but went for the first time as a structure protection crew member this summer, starting in Lytton.

“Lytton got a lot of media attention because of how devastating and immediate the damage was, so everyone was on edge and pushing to get a lot done,” Knowles said. “But it was awesome showing up and doing more than what we thought we could accomplish, working through the kinks with everyone finding their roles naturally.”

The days working in the Interior were long: 12-hour shifts, with nights spent in tents on airstrips. Still, for many, it was coming back home that was difficult.

“I also work in a restaurant, and coming back was challenging for me,” Schulz said. “I liked the routine of working 12 hours a day and found it difficult coming home and getting back to normal life.”

Others, Norris-Jones said, felt bad about coming home.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to go down a pretty dark path where you can question if you made the right decision and feel guilty that you have a home to come back to while others don’t.”

That’s why he says it’s so important to talk about what happened with your peers and to lean on the incredible relationships that could only be forged by working together in flames.

“They have something in common with that peer group that can’t be replicated at any other time in their lives,” Norris-Jones said. “It’s a connection that they have together. It creates that sense of family that we want in our organization. Should they need us in the time of need, we will be there for them.”

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