Cariboo crews on loan to fight wildfires in the Yukon

Firefighters concentrated on protecting communities, cabins and First Nations values

A plane dumps a load of retardant in mutual efforts between British Columbia and Yukon firefighters to battle some raging wildfires near Carmacks, Yukon after numerous lightning strikes set several areas ablaze.

A plane dumps a load of retardant in mutual efforts between British Columbia and Yukon firefighters to battle some raging wildfires near Carmacks, Yukon after numerous lightning strikes set several areas ablaze.

100 Mile House forest protection officer Chris Betuzzi was one of a team of people from British Columbia who recently travelled to the Yukon to help fight rampant wildfires.

When asked by the Cariboo Fire Centre, Betuzzi says he headed north on June 20 and supervised firefighting efforts from his base in Whitehorse.

“I was requested to go with 21 firefighters and a couple of other senior officers to help with the Yukon fire situation. They’d had quite a few lightning storms go through the area and started some fires that they needed help on.”

He drove to Prince George where the group flew out together to Whitehorse, and then spread out to the various communities experiencing wildfires, he explains.

Betuzzi’s role as a Type 1 representative was to ensure B.C. safety rules and work standards were followed for its crews working beyond its borders, he says, and that they were “being looked after.”

He supervised the crews from his group, but also liaised between Yukon representatives and crews on the ground.

“Over and above that, I ensure our crews are receiving proper briefing in what to expect in the fire activity, and [so on] because the timber types up there are quite a bit different than what the crews get around here.”

Black spruce trees abound in the Yukon to create a dense forest with tree limbs right down to ground level, he adds, which fully dry out within two-to-five days after getting wet.

“You get fairly volatile fire behaviour … some of the crews did see some pretty extreme fire behaviour. We had to back off a couple of times, but there were no real safety concerns.”

Most of the fires they attacked were near Carmacks, a small town about 200 kilometres north of Whitehorse, Betuzzi explains.

“There was another smaller group of fires around Dawson City, about 550 km northwest of Whitehorse. It was variable because we moved around a lot.”

Of his group of 21, crews of about a half-dozen each were deployed to fight fires in Carmacks and Ross River (just east of there), he says, as well as in Mayo (50 km southeast) and Beaver Creek (100 km south) from Dawson City.

“Their main objective was to get ready for a large fire that was in Alaska to the west of Beaver Creek, and was threatening to come in to the Yukon.”

Betuzzi notes a fair amount of rain helped that effort and the crew was soon reassigned to Carmacks.

However, not all the fire-suppression efforts went that smoothly, he adds.

The group began its effort during the two days surrounding the Summer Solstice, which the senior officer says saw 21-22 hours of daylight at that latitude, and then twilight until dawn, which fortified the flames.

“It made for a very long peak burning period – which is the extreme end of the burning – that would start mid-afternoon and sometimes run well into the evening, before the day would start to cool off and the fires would calm down again.”

He explains the firefighting concentrated on protecting communities, cabins and First Nations values, but in wilderness areas, the blazes are left to burn to restore the forest “system.”

Betuzzi and his group returned home on July 5, and he says it was a good trip.

“We did manage to control quite a number of fires.”

On July 13, the Cariboo Fire Centre sent another initial attack crew (three firefighters) to the Yukon, which according to policy, will stay there up to a maximum of 19 days.

Betuzzi notes his group of firefighters were treated “very well” by the Yukon government and some learned new skills, but all of them “appreciated” being able to help when needed.

“It was a very good, lasting experience, and for the rest of their careers fighting fires, they will remember that.”

100 Mile House Free Press