Saanich Fire engine E32 in Clinton and Cache Creek during the wildfires. Photo by Capt. Darwin Schellenberg

A day in the life: Saanich firefighter recalls week fighting wildfires

Skeleton staffs stay in evacuated towns to host firefighters

To drive through Cache Creek to Clinton, or Williams Lake to Soda Creek, is to drive under smoke, through smoke and past smoke.

Each week a new rotation of firefighters from the Saanich Fire Department has deployed to fight the wildfires raging across B.C.’s Interior. Since Saanich sent its first rotation on July 12, it’s now taken on a bigger role, sending its mobile emergency command centre to Clinton where it’s home base for that area’s wildfire operations.

Related: 2017 now B.C.’s second-worst wildfire season on record.

Capt. Darwin Schellenberg led Saanich Fire’s third deployment from July 24 to Aug. 1, working two days near Williams Lake, three days at Loon Lake, and some time at Soda Creek. In Schellenberg’s crew were Craig Ford, Carl Treples and Tom McConnell.

They experienced a lot of driving and, while they patrolled for hot spots and soaked vulnerable areas, they also moved a lot of water into strategic locations.

“Once we got to the Soda Creek fire we were tasked with helping in structural protection, setting up and filling bladders, which are large 1,500-gallon portable tanks,” said Schellenberg, who started his firefighting career with the Princeton Sierras in 1989.

The bladders are ample enough to provide house protection should a fire reach them.

As the crew moved from one site to the next, including Loon Lake, which flared up with many homes lost, they found themselves partnered with local South Island fire crews.

At night, they’d return to city centres where skeleton crews of citizens remained to keep hotels and restaurants open. Sometimes they camped at a group site.

Related: Video from inside a wildfire.

The Tim Hortons in Williams Lake may have been the highlight of the week.

“You’d meet a lot of firefighters from all over B.C., Whitehorse and Ontario,” Schellenberg said. “There was one restaurant kept open in Clinton.”

They were at Loon Lake when Clinton got the evacuation call, and the crew was redeployed there.

Everywhere they went, there was smoke.

“There was a lot of general smoke in the air, and as you got closer to each location you’d find large volumes of smoke, in some cases candling trees,” Schellenberg said. “The fire [we came closest to] was the city of Clinton and in the areas burning around Loon Lake.”

Overhead, there’s always helicopters in the air and sometimes air tankers. The helicopters drop 1,500 gallons of water on specific locations while the air tankers drop retardants.

During the day it was warm, between 25 and 30 C though it dropped down to 15 C at night.

Through it all, the foursome was rarely apart from each other. Needless to say, they got to know each other really well.

“I already knew them quite well but when you’re living in a fire truck on 12- to 18-hour shifts, you get to know everyone that much more,” Schellenberg said. “We all got along and worked extremely well as a unit.”

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