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'The trees are enormous'
First fire crews return from B.C. as province faces devastating fire season

Emelie Peacock
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 2, 2017

As the first Yellowknife fire crew starts work in B.C., one returning firefighter is sharing his experience helping to combat one of the worst fire seasons in the province's history.

Driving back home on Saturday after 18 days spent fighting fires in the territory's central interior, Ryan Hanna had just enough time to stop on the roadside to wish his son Noah a happy 10th birthday.

He is one of the first firefighters to return to the NWT and now that he's home in Hay River, all he can think of are his two boys, Noah, and seven-year-old Dexon.

"He thinks that we're very brave and just hopes that we don't get hurt," he said of his son's reaction to his father's recent deployment.

With a state of emergency in place since July 4, chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said the need for firefighters from outside the province will continue.

Hanna saw the scorched earth left behind by the 142 fires burning in the province, including dozens of major fires affecting communities.

"When we went down there we saw how the devastation is going, the evacuees going into Prince George," he said. "It was very sad but we were so glad and honoured to help the people of British Columbia. We would gladly do it again."

Hanna, an experienced firefighter with 13 years spent fighting forest fires in the NWT, said he got along very well the crews from Ontario and Saskatchewan. Some challenges included adjusting to the different terrain and vegetation.

"I'm used to walking on flatlands and the mountains there, oh my God," he said. "You could feel the elevation difference."

The area he was working is about 2,000 metres higher than the North Slave region of the Northwest Territories. Hanna said working up in the mountains and heading down to base camp every day took a lot out of him.

"When we would work 12 hours out there, walking on the land, you wouldn't notice it," he said.

"But at the end of work, going back down to base camp, you feel a little fatigue and kind of dizziness because of the elevation change."

Some lessons Hanna said he took from the experience include a focus on safety as well as the importance of communications and weather reports. With the fires he was fighting, winds could change every 15 minutes.

Richard Olsen, the territory's manager of fire operations said Monday the NWT has sent firefighters from each region, including one from Yellowknife and another from Behchoko. Three more support staff were on their way to B.C. Monday.

"It's a great experience to get not only over to a different kind of environment but also an opportunity to learn from the other firefighters," he said.

"Some of the incident command systems ... are a lot bigger than the ones that they're used to when they're up here."

Last week the NWT had 68 personnel in B.C., including firefighters, liaison officers and supervisors.

The NWT crew also brought firefighting trucks with them. The first crews arrived home Sunday, 40 firefighters and 15 support staff are still in B.C. fighting fires.

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