The Bitterroot Hot Shots’ firefighting season officially got underway last week while battling a blaze in a Canadian boreal forest and hazing away bears with helicopter water drops.
The Darby-based group of elite firefighters hit its halfway mark Wednesday in a 14-day stint working on Alberta’s largest fire.
The uncontrolled Chuckegg Creek fire has burned over 700,000 acres — nearly the size of Rhode Island. It is already 50% larger than last year’s record-breaking Medocino Complex Fire in California.
Bitterroot Hotshots Superintendent Cache Gibbons said the fire is burning through a boreal forest of mostly spruce and aspen.
“Aspen is not supposed to burn very well,” Gibbons said. “But it’s so dry up here, the fire is carrying through both the aspen understory and getting up into the leaves. It’s not something you would usually see.”
Canada has recorded 1,667 fires so far this year, which have burned over 2,700 square miles. While the number of fires so far this year is 84% of the 10-year average, the area that has actually burned is almost 270% of the average from the same time period.
Gibbons said he’s been told the intense fire season is the result of multiple years of drought.
“They haven’t had the snowpack that they’ve had in years’ past,” he said. “They haven’t had the moisture. The aspen stands are really dry. There is a lot of swamp and wetlands up here and you can walk right through them. We’re working in parts of the forest that are supposed to be wetlands and there’s no water there.”
But Gibbons said what’s most unusual for those living in the north are the number of fires burning in the wildland/urban interface.
“Typically, they are not used to fighting fire in the wildland/urban interface,” he said. “There are a lot of communities being impacted. There is just so much fire on the landscape.”
The Bitterroot and Flathead hotshot crews have been working to keep fire out of the small farming community of Paddle Prairie, Alberta, which is south of the town of High Level.
“We are working together to accomplish the same objective,” Gibbons said. “There has been a lot of people evacuated from the communities around here.”
Some of those who were evacuated apparently left their dogs behind. Gibbons said the crews often have a dog or two following them in the morning or at night as they walk into the fire line.
The huge fire has also displaced a lot of bears.
“Bears are pretty big issue,” he said. “There are a large number of bears in the area that have been displaced by this fire.”
One ended up in the back of their truck this past week. Another chewed up a British Columbia firefighter’s pack.
“We were working near a dump the other day and had so many bears coming in on us that we had to have a helicopter dump a bucket of water on them,” Gibbons said. “We gave them a bath.”
Working alongside firefighters for all parts of Canada, the Bitterroot and Flathead hotshots hope to have the area to which they were assigned “buttoned up” before they head back to Montana.
“We are working to secure the line to the point that when we walk away it will be in patrol status,” Gibbons said. “It should be in a place where it will hold for the foreseeable future.”
While the fires in Canada are expected to continue to burn, Gibbons was uncertain whether the Montana hotshot crews will return to north of the border.
“The fire situation is starting to ramp up in the states,” he said.
Arizona and New Mexico are starting to get some wildfires, and the fire danger in Alaska is rising.
“There could be needs in other places when it’s time for us to go again,” Gibbons said.