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‘It’s heavy’: Firefighter deaths weighing on B.C. wildfire crews

Operations director says some of the fires are too aggressive to put people in front of

B.C. Wildfire Service’s operations director says in his 21 years with the organization he’s “never felt the heaviness that we are feeling this season.”

Cliff Chapman took the opportunity to address the recent wildland firefighter deaths in B.C. and the Northwest Territories and Alberta during Wednesday’s (Aug. 2) latest wildfire and drought update.

READ MORE: August can be the most challenging month for B.C. wildfires, says Ma

READ MORE: Firefighter killed in B.C. identified as Zak Muise of Kelowna

“I started as a firefighter as a 17-year-old kid and have worked my way through the organization to now where I’m director of provincial operations of the Wildfire service. I’ve never felt the heaviness that we are feeling this season with the tragic loss of two individuals with B.C. wildfires.”

Crews are doing OK, but it’s heavy.

“There is a lot of grief within the organization and beyond.”

But Chapman said crews continue to show up everyday to support the firefighting effort on the ground, while making the difficult decision to leave their families and livelihoods behind.

It was the first weekly update since news broke that another wildfire firefighter was killed while working.

Zak Muise, 25, has been identified as the firefighter who was killed while assisting with the Donnie Creek wildfire, near Fort. St. John. It’s B.C.’s largest wildfire at more than 583,000 hectares as of July 25.

B.C. Wildfire Service and Fort St. John RCMP confirmed the death Saturday, noting Muise was working in a remote area, about 150 kilometres north of Fort St. John, when the UTV he was riding on, rolled over a steep drop on a gravel road.

Muise, a Kelowna resident, is the second firefighter to die in B.C. this season, and the fourth in Canada.

On July 13, 19-year-old Devyn Gale died while working near Revelstoke. It was her third year with the service.

READ MORE: ‘Some smiles, you just can’t replace’: Memorial in Revelstoke for firefighter Devyn Gale

The loss of life, Chapman said, is not something that crews have experienced a great deal in B.C. in the last decade or two and it’s not something they want to experience again going forward.

“The truth is: Humans are the centre of emergencies, whether that’s the people who are impacted or the people who are there trying to limit the impact.”

Asked about the level of danger, he said to consider when an evacuation order is put in place: A community is leaving due to the threat of wildfire, but B.C. Wildfire Service crews are “going the other way, toward that response to try and protect the community.”

“There are inherent dangers with that.”

READ MORE: Wildfire crews face extreme conditions as they mourn B.C. firefighter

However, there are times when it’s too dangerous to send in crews.

Pointing to the recent fire in Osoyoos, Chapman said it was extremely aggressive and “we can’t put humans in front of that fire.

“That fire is extremely dangerous and it is moving so fast that our people have, obviously, significant training on what to do, what to know about the weather, what to know about the fire behaviour and when is the time to pull back based on the conditions that they see.”

READ MORE: Eagle Bluff Wildfire grows to more than 3,000 hectares in Osoyoos

READ MORE: ‘It’s good to be home’ Evacuation orders lifted for 540 Osoyoos properties


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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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