fire fighters

How to fight a forest fire


Morgan Reilly, firefighter in Northwestern Ontario, Canada, explains how to fight a forest fire.

Last summer, firefighter Morgan Reilly tackled a blaze that raged across about 2.5 million acres of Canadian forest—an area almost as large as Jamaica. Reilly leads a crew of four, working with a “fire boss” (“the chainsaw guy who can cut out a helipad in a forest in 20 minutes”) and two “swamp donkeys” (“the crew members on the pumps and hose”). Of the 2.5-million-acre fire, Reilly says, “There were hundreds of four-person crews working for months to put it out.” Forest fires are unpredictable. Reilly’s crew, based in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, can go months without seeing flames, or do six months of 19-day field tours with only two days at base in between. “I’m excited about fires,” says the 23-year- old, “but it’s my job to put them out. And I love my job.” 

1. Call in air strikes

“We set up pumps on the ground, but we also have aircraft—waterbombers that I can call in to drop 1,700 gallons of water per load. As the crew leader, I communicate with everyone on the ground and also in the air. It’s a lot to have to think about at the same time.”

2. Be a people person

“We’re ready to go out to a fire for up to 19 days with everything we need: food, clothing, equipment. There’s no cell-phone reception, and our satellite phones can only be used for work. In these situations, the crew become your family—you’re with them 24/7.” 

3. Stoke the flames 

“One exciting part of our job is performing prescribed burns: lighting up certain parts of the forest—for example, areas of tornado damage with lots of dead wood—to prevent future fires growing. For the bigger fires, we use a helicopter with a drip torch hanging below it, dripping burning diesel fuel onto the forest.” 

4. Know when to say no

“The hardest part is keeping your cool; if everyone is able to do that, 90 percent of the time it works out. My first fire, in 2011, was in the other 10 percent. They flew us to an island on a lake, 1,500 feet from shore, where a huge fire was burning. For an hour
we watched smoke billowing toward us. There was nothing we could do, so we got flown out. By next morning the entire island was burnt out.” 

5. Feel the burn 

“The job’s tough on your body. We have to pass an annual fitness test: 31 laps of a 130-foot course, going up and down V-shaped ramps, carrying 60-pound pumps or 55-pound hose packs. All in under 14 and a half minutes. Not easy.” 

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