Ucluelet fire chief Rick Geddes travelled to the Okanagan last month to help tackle a devastating wildfire in Monte Lake. (photo courtesy of Rick Geddes)

Ucluelet fire chief Rick Geddes travelled to the Okanagan last month to help tackle a devastating wildfire in Monte Lake. (photo courtesy of Rick Geddes)

Ucluelet fire chief shares wildfire fighting experience

Ucluelet fire chief Rick Geddes spent two gruelling weeks battling wildfires in the Okanagan

Ucluelet fire chief Rick Geddes spent two gruelling weeks battling wildfires in the Okanagan over the summer.

“The big thing about it is every single one of those firefighters is there because they chose to be. They were given an option to go and they all said, ‘Yes.’ The comradery really is there because we’re all there for the same reasons, we want to help, we’re trained to help and we chose to be there,” Geddes told the Westerly News.

“We don’t know these folks and now all of a sudden we’re living with them, we’re sleeping with them, we’re eating with them, we’re working with them 12 to 14 hours a night, this is your family for two weeks so you better be able to fit in and adapt and it’s amazing how smooth things go after you get to know your crew after a few shifts.”

Geddes travelled to Monte Lake, between Kamloops and Vernon with the Cherry Creek Fire Crew who had asked him to go with them due to his past experience fighting wildfires in Clinton, Burns Lake and Port Alberni.

“It’s the nature of my job and my world,” he said. “I just want to help. It’s always a great experience. Although it’s amazingly heartbreaking when you lose houses and you lose whole blocks of houses, it’s definitely a good experience for new knowledge and new networking with other fire departments.”

He added working with larger fire departments like Saanich and Richmond brought opportunities to share knowledge and strategies.

“It’s always a nice opportunity to team up with some bigger fire departments, we learn from them and they also learn from us because they’re used to having fire hydrants everywhere and we sometimes have to go searching for water so it’s a good opportunity for them to learn as well,” he said.

Geddes’ team had initially been tasked to Cache Creek to help with the Lytton fire and he left Ucluelet on Aug. 1 at 1 a.m. to catch the 5:15 a.m. ferry, arriving in Cache Creek around noon, but was then told his unit would be redeployed to Monte Lake.

He said his team arrived in Monte Lake and spent the first three nights patrolling and becoming familiar with the area as they waited to see if the fire would spread towards them.

“On about our third or fourth night there, the fire came down the hills into Monte Lake and that’s when a lot of structures were lost. Thankfully the area was evacuated so there were no lives lost, but it was definitely a little bit hairy at times,” Geddes said. “You can go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds…Things change momentarily, you come up with a plan and at the last minute that plan changes and that happens daily.”

He added some of the less experienced firefighters wanted to tackle the flames right away as they would a structure fire, but wildfires require a more defensive approach.

“They just wanted to jump on them because they saw flames, but that wasn’t necessarily the right approach to forestry firefighting. Oftentimes, it’s a matter of waiting for the fire to come to you and not putting yourselves in harm’s way. It’s more of a defensive than an offensive mode of attack,” he said. “It’s a lot different game than structural firefighting. You have to anticipate where the fire is going to go.”

Geddes’ team was on the night shift and he said they spent their first few days struggling to get any sleep during the 35 degree heat and helicopters frequently landing and taking off near the elementary school they were staying in.

After a few days, the roughly 50-member crew was moved to Vernon and housed in the local curling rink, which was also serving as a reception centre for evacuees, putting faces to the tragedy unfolding around them.

“It was awkward for us, every time a fire truck would pull in or pull out people who had evacuated were waiting and wanted to know what was happening and had questions for us. Knowing the area, knowing what we saw and not being able to share that information is especially strenuous on us because in our world we like to help people and not being able to of course is tough,” he said. “We have to remain very vague…Just making sure we’re saying the right thing and not saying too much, it’s hard.”

He said the team became very familiar with the area and it was heartbreaking to see homes destroyed.

“We get to know the different areas of town and we get to know the backroads intimately we get to know these areas because our biggest role is knowing a way out in case things get really bad, so we really need to know all the roads, all the trails, all the safe zones and evacuation zones for us if it gets real bad,” he said. “The hardest part is knowing that we just lost a whole bunch of houses and those are somebody’s houses, that’s somebody’s livelihood and there’s really nothing we can do about it given the circumstances, the whole mountain’s on fire.”

In a follow up email, Geddes added area residents were inspiring in their support.

“Every shift change, there were people lining the highway near Vernon Camp, holding up signs, and waving to us. That kind of thing really helps a guy get through being away from loved ones, not getting enough sleep, sore bones, et cetera,” he wrote. “I actually had a few Okanagan residents reach out to me on social media with messages of support. One night, after not having had a proper meal for a couple days, and losing several houses the previous night, the folks from O’Keefe Historic Ranch made our task force an amazing dinner. It was like Christmas to a bunch of tired, sore, hungry firefighters.”

Geddes arrived back in Ucluelet on August 16, explaining two weeks is the mandatory shift limit and his team had worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for 14 straight days, adding some days went longer if the fire was especially aggressive.

“You’re usually pretty bagged after two weeks, you’re ready for a break,” he said.


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