Junior wildfire crew flexing off for next season

Muscle, endurance, and technique: it’s showtime for local junior wildfire crew applicants for next season.

Sierra Woolsey from Fraser Lake Elementary-Secondary pulls 18 lbs of weight

Muscle, endurance, and technique: it’s showtime for local junior wildfire crew applicants for next season.

Grade 12 students from Fraser Lake, Fort St. James, and Vanderhoof gathered on Nov. 13 at W. L. McLeod Elementary School in Vanderhoof to test their fitness for the last phase of the application process to the provincial government’s annual Junior Fire Crew program.

In order to continue the program that began in October, applicants tested their strength and endurance by attempting to carry various weights that simulate firefighting equipment over different distances and elevation levels, said Darren Carpenter, the school district’s career and trades coordinator.

Students have 16 and a half minutes to complete the initial physical exam, and in the final fitness test in May they will have two less minutes.

Previously not compulsory, the earlier test will now eliminate the applicants who would less likely be able to meet the requirements by the end of the program — saving their time and energy, Carpenter said.

Past applicants had trouble significantly lowering their times in the months between the tests, he added.

“It’s also technique and nuances,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes students were limited by their natural physique.”

Based on their performance in the program from now until May, the top 5 students will receive a summer job offer from the BC Wildfire Service.

Sixteen years ago, the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations of B.C. started the program with the Nechako Lakes school district when its wildfire service department had problems finding employees, Carpenter said.

“When hiring locally, retention rates go through the roof,” he said, as local employees encounter less issues with essential needs — such as accommodation and an emotional support system — than those from the Lower Mainland.

Since its inception, the program has expanded to other zones in the province in the following years, Carpenter said.

In fact, 40 per cent of the province’s wildfire service staff that have worked with the department for over five years came from the Junior Fire Crew program, said Mike Pritchard, zone protection officer of BC Wildfire Service.

“If it wasn’t working for us, we wouldn’t have continued the program for so long,” Pritchard said. “It’s a significant recruiting method.”

Though not all may become part of the junior fire crew, program participants can also apply to the department through regular channels, as the program provides them with various firefighting certification including the S-100 fire suppression course, Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), and fire safety,

“Some became standard fire fighters,” Pritchard said.

“Every year we get different fire departments across the province asking for potential employees.”

For applicant Trent Emel from Nechako Valley Secondary, the fitness test may be the hardest hurdle in the program so far.

An opportunity to make extra money before school, the program is a good addition to his resume as well, Emel said.