Chase Kowalchuk is a crew boss on an initial attack fire ranger crew with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).
He recently returned to Fort Frances, Ontario after two weeks in Alberta fighting the over 500,000-hectare wildfire around Fort McMurray.
“This is easily the biggest fire I’ve ever been on,” he said.
Kowalchuk is a Fergus resident, and his parents still call the town home. He graduated from Centre Wellington District High School in 2011, joined the Ontario Junior Rangers program and when it was shut down in 2012, he joined the MNRF.
He heard the stories about the job from his classroom technicians at college.
“Once the ranger program shut down in 2012, I wanted to stay in the MNRF and have an exciting job in the outdoors that kind of mattered in some way, so I made the jump to fire,” he said in an interview with the Advertiser.
Every summer Kowalchuk, who is a crew boss second in-command of a four-person team, heads to Fort Frances for the fire ranger crew.
On May 2, he reported for duty and two days later he found out he was heading to Alberta.
“(My manager) pointed to me and my rookie and said ‘you guys are headed out’,” he said.
By May 6, Kowalchuk was in Edmonton and getting his orders to head to Fort McMurray. Everyone had evacuated the city and other communities were evacuated the previous day. Evacuees were being led through the city to the south and the fire had grown in size to 2,000 square kilometres.
Kowalchuk said it got “real” for him when he saw the sign for the city. He didn’t see any “carnage” or abandoned vehicles on his way up Highway 63.
“It wasn’t quite apocalyptic – not yet.”
He said when the Ontario fire crew arrived, the logistics hadn’t caught up, meaning there was a little confusion about their first assignment.
Kowalchuk explained the Albertan wildfire fighters were battling the northern front of the fire, while municipal firefighters tackled the tremendous task of the structural fires within the city limits.
On the first Saturday of his deployment, Kowalchuk and his team drove through the evacuated city of Fort McMurray.
“As we were driving, there had been a couple of houses that has been burned, vehicles that were abandoned that were pulled up onto the partition beside the road. The smoke was real thick, we all had our four-ways on,” he said.
“It was, I’m not sure if apocalyptic, that might be too strong a word, but it was definitely eerie.”
He was sent to the southeast, near Anzac.
“The community was being threatened so we were sent down there to work, so a group of us did what’s called wild land interface firefighting where forest fuel types come right up into the community,” he said.
“My crew itself was sent to this creek system a little more south than that where the fire had been jumping it. Our first task was to secure that line and make sure that around there the fire wasn’t jumping over or crossing that perimeter that they wanted to hold.”
He said he hadn’t heard anything negative about their efforts, so he assumed it hadn’t been breached, but he added “on a fire this big when it’s this hot, there’s not a lot a pump and hose line can do in the long run. If it wants to go it will go.”
Kowalchuk and his crew were also sent to help put in fire breaks, including trying to stop the fire from crossing a hydro corridor.
They made the fire breaks larger and larger as the fire continued to jump them. Another technique is to fight fire with fire by burning the fuel from the break to the front line of the wild fire in hopes of stopping it there.
The fire activity picked up on May 16, he explained, because of the heat – 27 degrees Celsius – and low humidity – 15 per cent. When the humidity drops below the temperature, that’s a red flag for crews.
In the last few days of his tour, they tried to protect an oil operation.
“It’s not exactly people’s personal homes, but it is still, there’s something to your back that you want to make sure it doesn’t get to,” he said.
The crews put in 14-hour days, but Kowalchuk said there is a lot of job satisfaction.
“It’s hard on your body and stuff but it is definitely worth it, especially on a fire, an incident like this where there’s actually things at stake,” he said.
Kowalchuck got his first look at the scope of the fire during one of his flights to where he and his crew would be working.
“Where we were flying to the southeast, you could see the large smoke column and it was just going and far, far to the north, there was a massive column where the fire was just super intense, engulfing entire trees,” he said.
The fire is just too big to see, even from the helicopter, he explained.
“When we were flying we could only see our small portion, well, our large portion I guess – small relative to the size of the fire,” he said.
“When you saw the smoke columns, from these couple different places it kind of sunk in, like whoa, this thing is huge.
“You feel very small.”
Some of the Ontario firefighters are staying an a community called Conklin and an oil camp.
He said it is a nice place with great food.
There are some evacuees that are staying there too and have been very thankful to the crew.
“They were incredibly thankful towards us, which is something that we normally don’t get, nor do we expect, but it was still nice to hear,” he said.
“Normally we fight fires out in the middle of nowhere… so no one will really hear about it or see it, but people being thankful and coming up to us, approaching us is real nice.
“It kind of brings it back for us and helps a lot of us remember why we do this.”
End of deployment
Kowalchuck flew back to Ontario on May 22 even though the fire still blazed in Alberta.
“I’d stay if we could … it feels wrong to leave something undone… it feels wrong to just pick up and leave, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.
Ontario’s crew can only be out on deployment for 19 days, he explained. But with a couple of days rest, there’s a possibility they could be sent back, or even to another part of the country.
He’s been keeping his parents updated, saying they worry less than they once did and are used to his lifestyle.
His mom, Jacquie Kowalchuk, agreed.
Jacquie said the family lived in Alberta for a number of years before coming to Fergus so she felt “almost honoured that (Chase is) going back to Alberta to help with something in his home province.”
She said the fire hit home as she knows a number of people who live in the area – and some who lost their homes.
“We’re proud that he chooses to do that line of work every summer,” said Jacquie.
Canadian Red Cross has raised over $100 million for evacuees of Fort McMurray.
Residents wishing to make a donation to the Red Cross, which will be matched by the federal government, can visit redcross.ca or text REDCROSS to 30333 to donate $5.
The Salvation Army has raised over $650,000 towards the Alberta fire response efforts. Donations can be made at SalvationArmy.ca/albertafires or by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY. A $10 donation can also be made by texting FORTMAC to 45678.