Rob Bergen grins at the camera at the Elephant Hill fire camp in Clinton. Claire Allen photo.

Rob Bergen: Long days and non-stop work on the fire line

What it’s like being a crew member on the Elephant Hill fire

Rob Bergen packs his bags and tent up at the Clinton fire camp where he has slept the past 15 days.

It’s Aug. 25 and he came off the Elephant Hill fire line a little earlier today, finishing up two weeks of work to have an obligatory three-day rest.

For many, the fire season this year has been non-stop. For crews on the front line, more so than most.

Bergen, originally from 100 Mile House, has been based out of Princeton this year, working on the Princeton Sierras unit crew. He works with the BC Wildfire Service seasonally.

At the start of this year, the crew was helping with flooding in the Okanagan.

“We were doing flood duty and then pretty much once it got hot there, we went straight from bagging sand bags to fighting fires and it’s been non-stop since,” he says.

Bergen has worked on fires in Princeton, the Shuswap, Lytton and Quesnel this year, and expects to be called out straight away after his three days off.

He says he’s been working 14 to 15 hour shifts on the Elephant Hill fire.

“For my part, I’m a faller, so I go into the area that hasn’t been worked yet and I assess the trees in there and then I will take out the trees that would be deemed dangerous to anyone working around it. Then I’ll go through and I’ll cut them all down and then once the trees are down, the rest of the crew can come in and work,” he says.

Once he’s completed that job, he says he’ll join whatever the rest of the crew is doing: laying hose, spraying down fire, doing a burn-off or any number of other jobs.

“I just like being outdoors. That is the biggest part, and I like the physical aspect as well. You’re hanging out with 20 people who you’ve become super tight with, so it’s like hanging out with a big group of friends in the bush, doing good work.”

Bergen, 32, recently graduated from nursing school and, once the fire season is over, plans to nurse over the winter. He says it’s possible he’ll try to do both in future years — switching jobs between seasons.

This is Bergen’s sixth year firefighting. Before, he was a tree planter.

He says this year has been different than other years on the fire line.

“For one thing, there are a lot more interface fires, so a lot more fire right in cities and towns, where a lot of years you are out on fires where you are just in the middle of nowhere and you are protecting resources like timber and stuff like that. But this year, you are working in people’s back yards and you are going into people’s houses and you are helping them move stuff out. That’s definitely different than most years. Secondly, being in a state of emergency, just the hours that we are working. The one fire we were on we did two 26 hour shifts and then we did a 38-hour shift over the course of like, four days. It was just, you’re working non-stop.”

Being from the area, working on the Elephant Hill fire has been hard. His first impression when he arrived was shock, he says. His next — there’s a lot of work to be done.

“It’s sad you know. It’s like a trip down memory lane. When you come back here and then to see it like this, where areas that you are used to seeing, a forest or places where you used to hang out and friend’s cabins and houses and stuff that you know, and seeing the state that they are in. Yeah, it’s difficult to see but at the same time, it’s nice when you see places that haven’t burned over yet. Knowing that you are able to help stop that fire from progressing from there, it’s nice for sure.”

Working on so many interface fires has posed a different sort of challenge to the fire crews.

“I think you’ve got to put it in perspective. It’s nice to be doing work that you really feel proud of. You are helping out here and trying to protect homes and getting people out and it’s good work to be doing and you’ve got to put it in that perspective when you are working. When you come home at the end of the day though, it’s kind of tough. You see people losing their places and you see that side of it as well. There’s a bit of a mental challenge with it for sure.”

His crew has been working on the northern tip of the fire, trying to prevent it from progressing to the north and east.

Still, the work is rewarding.

“I think, just working with a crew and putting in long hours and then looking back at the end of the day and seeing the kind of work that you’ve done. Just sitting down at the end of the day totally bagged out and tired out and just being like, yeah. We did everything we could today for sure.”

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