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‘It doesn’t go out’: California firefighters back home from battling vicious fire in Canada


With California’s wildfire season yet to take off, local firefighters were in western Canada for the past two weeks helping put down some of the most intense wildfires that the neighboring country has experienced in years.

The California-based Hotshot Crews - highly trained groups of firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Park Service - arrived back at McClellan Airport on Sunday, having endured swampy land, daily thunderstorms and mosquito attacks that they don’t typically encounter while fighting California fires.

Local Hotshot Crews are frequently sent to other parts of the country and sometimes outside the country to help put down intense blazes. The United States’ aid to other countries is reciprocal, as firefighters from Canada, as well as Australia and New Zealand, have assisted in putting down California wildfires in past years.

While California’s wildfires likely won’t heat up until late August to early September - as many of the high elevation areas in the state right now are still covered in snow, according to National Forest Service fire information officer Stanton Florea - wildfires in Alberta in western Canada this summer have called for continuous support from the U.S.

The 800,000 acres that have burned in the Alberta wildfire that the California firefighters were treating already exceeds the approximately 730,000 acres of national forest land that burned in California in all of last year, Florea said. Though California’s firefighters just returned, firefighters from Colorado will be going to Canada next week to assist in putting down the ongoing flames.

A California firefighter kicking soil in an Alberta forest, introducing the soil to oxygen and causing it to flame up. David Updike

Matt Smith, a firefighter from Klammath National Forest in Happy Camp, said that the soil underlying the Canada wildfires caused the fires to be long-lasting.

“It burns a lot deeper in the soil, whereas here in California it burns fast, it burns hot and then it’s out,” Smith said. “Up there it burns long and smolders. It’s like lighting a cigar and it just stays lit. It doesn’t go out.”

David Updike, a forest fire management officer from Stanislaus National Forest in Sonora, said that the terrain and climate in Canada differ from that of California, adding to the difficulty of putting out fires.

Updike said the swampy ground in Alberta was “like quicksand,” and said he saw a vehicle submerged into the ground almost up to its roof. He said the terrain made it hard for firefighters to hike in and around the forests.

The swampy land also meant the California firefighters encountered many more mosquitoes than they usually do locally. Smith joked, “They say the state bird of Alberta is the mosquito.”

Updike said they also experienced thunderstorms almost every day. Though rain makes it seem like the fires would be more easily contained, he said, the wind caused by the storms would cause the fires to spread wider. The forests also dried up quickly after the storms ended, meaning the fires soon continued to flame up again, he said.

A thunderstorm above an Alberta forest generating wind that causes the wildfire to spread David Updike

The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t only concentrated its crews in Canada. Currently, 260 of its firefighters are battling fires in Alaska, which is experiencing record high temperatures.

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