Over 500 people stationed at the Keremeos Creek Wildfire camp in Oliver

Daily life at a wildfire camp

Casey Richardson

BC Wildfire Service crews and firefighters are calling the tents pitched at Oliver Airport home in between fighting off the Keremeos Creek Wildfire.

BCWS Fire Information Officer Mikhail Elsay said that the Oliver airport was chosen because it's a big enough space to handle all of the air operations.

“It's also a centralized location for all our crews to be based out of actioning any fires in the lower South Okanagan,” he added. “It's a very fast setup of camp here. We always pick spots that are ideally close to the fire, so that crews can spend as little time travelling to and from the incident.”

The makeshift camp has been set up since last week and includes wash cars for bathrooms and showers, kitchen facilities, some sleeper trailers and another group of trailers that are dedicated to the incident management team.

Most of the team is set up on a field in their tents.

“It works as well as we've got. We, firefighters, are hearty folk. They're comfortable sleeping on the grounds. Our support staff are used to this kind of living. It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's what we need to do to get the job done.”

Elsay said that a usual day shift firefighter would tend to be waking up between four and five in the morning, getting breakfast, grabbing their bag lunch and heading out to the line so that they can be out there for 6:30 a.m.

Teams ride about 30 minutes into the Similkameen to reach the wildfire grounds.

“They're working their full shift on the fire line. I'm passing them driving on the roads home between eight and nine o'clock, I'm passing crew trucks coming home to camp in the evening. So they're usually here at 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., eating dinner, going to bed and rinsing and repeating.”

Firefighters can work up to 14 days straight with these 14-hour days.

“So once we've done 14 days, we head home for up to three days rest. And we will be replaced with other resources that will come from other parts of the province to replace us on 14-day deployments.”

Elsay said gratitude needs to go out to the logistics team that sets up this camp and takes care of it.

“[They] make sure that there's enough gear for everyone, which deserves a massive kudos it's a massive undertaking to set up something like this.”

It’s important for the fire crews to set up at commercial facilities like the Oliver Airport, as their presence doesn't have as much impact on long-term impacts on the ground.

“That's why the airport's better than using someone's field for instance. Because if we do end up using private landowners who are trying to use their fields for farming or grazing, that kind of stuff, we do have an impact on the ground

As of Monday, a total of 405 fire personnel from BCWS and crews from all over the province are working the fire, along with a wide arsenal of heavy equipment and air support. Along with the support teams, there’s over 500 people on the wildfire.

“We staff the fire how we feel we need with the resources we need to deal with the incident. So this incident that we're dealing with right now is highly complex,” Elsay said. “It's burning in super steep, hard to access terrain and a lot of spots and other spots. They're there in the urban interface. So fires burning very close to homes and communities.”

Elsay said that the support from everybody in the Town of Oliver has been amazing.

“We have people coming by and saying thank you at the gates…It's nice to feel appreciated for the work that's being done out there.”

Crews are continuing to make good progress on the wildfire, spending the last few days conducting controlled burns in critical areas to bring control lines down.

“We are getting containment in the places that are most critical and we still got a long fight ahead of us though. There's still a lot of terrains that needs containment that crews are working on.”

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