In the late 1980s, the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) and Indigenous communities were both facing challenges, which they were able to turn into a joint opportunity. BCWS was struggling with a lack of capacity within their organization. Indigenous communities were dealing with a lack of employment opportunities. Thus, the Indigenous Unit Crew Program was born.
Operating out of Houston, the program was designed to provide local employment and improve the province’s wildfire capacity and response while also supporting Indigenous knowledge of land and fire management. As a result, the first Indigenous unit crews were formed in Princeton, Riske Creek, Smithers, and Vanderhoof between 1989 and 1990. In response to a request from the BCWS task team, 17 First Nations communities expressed interest in supporting a local crew. BCWS spent the following year recruiting crew members and supervisors across BC.
In its early years, the Indigenous Unit Crew Program divided its crews into three category types: Type I crews were employed directly by BCWS and were the most skilled and trained, modelled after America’s Hotshot Program (crews that work on the hottest parts of wildfires); Type II crews were contracted crews that conducted low-risk direct attack, establishing hose and pump lines, digging fire guard and removing fuels; Type III crews consisted of contracted or industry hires, and sometimes street hires, who had the least amount of training and assisted only in the final stages of response. Not long after they were formed, divisions by category were ended to create an equal standard across all crews. At its peak, there were 25 Indigenous Unit Crews positioned throughout six fire centres, including the D’arcy Heatseekers (Pemberton), Mount Currie Salish (Pemberton), Sto:lo Trailblazers (Haig), Rainmakers (Hazelton), Thunderbirds (Port Alberni), to name a few. The Indigenous Unit Crew Program not only gave its crew members steady seasonal employment, but it also instilled a sense of pride in Indigenous communities, shared resources, and developed relationships between the Province and First Nations.
Today, Indigenous unit crews are renowned for their incredible work ethic and exceptional knowledge of land and fire management practices. Their members make up some of the most well-respected and knowledgeable crews in the province, like the Salish Unit Crew of the Lil’Wat Nation, which was founded in 1989 (their first crew supervisor, Ryan Pascal, is the longest-running crew supervisor in BC).
For many Indigenous unit crew members, this work means more than a paycheck or a pat on the back. It provides them with the opportunity to honour and protect their heritage, culture, people, and the place they call home. Some have seen other benefits, too, like decreased alcoholism and substance abuse and improved mental and physical health. Sadly, though, while the Indigenous Unit Crew Program has been successful in many ways, some Indigenous crew members and leaders have fallen victim to racism and deviant behaviour from non-Indigenous crew members.
Challenges of the Indigenous Unit Crew Program
Over the years, the BCWS application and recruitment process has become more challenging for Indigenous applicants. In some instances, Indigenous crews were not allowed to recruit qualified community members from within their community. Instead, applicants were made to go through the standardized recruitment process and were often relocated to crews far from their families and local Nations.
Applicants were also expected to have a computer, cover letter, and resume in order to apply (often less accessible to Indigenous recruits). And, if they advanced to the interview stage of the process, a mostly white panel made the final decision. Many Indigenous applicants and returning crew members were not hired because they struggled with complex wording on the application forms, found competency-based interview questions difficult to answer, had a criminal record, or had no valid ID.
As wildfire seasons in BC grew longer each year, many crew members found it hard being apart from family, especially when hired on a crew far from their home community. Plus, there were cultural differences to contend with: during dipping season, the period between mid-August and early September when members would traditionally fish, hunt, and fetch wood to provide for their families, when members requested leave from their firefighting duties to make time for this important cultural practice, they were denied.
In time these barriers to recruitment and retention led to a decrease in Indigenous crew members and a major shift from the program’s original intent—to provide local employment for Indigenous communities and build BC’s wildfire response on the expertise of Indigenous peoples.
Today, the Salish Unit Crew is the only fully Indigenous crew within the BCWS.
Building Back of the Indigenous Unit Crew Program
In 2020, the Indigenous Recruitment Pilot Project was launched to recruit more Indigenous firefighters, support them in the application process, and retain them as crew members. In addition, Indigenous staff were hired to recruit new Indigenous employees.
The recruitment and interview process has also been adapted to better accommodate Indigenous applicants. For example, Indigenous people interested in working for the BCWS can be partnered with a current staff member to help answer their questions on the job and support them through the application process.
Competencies and requirements were adjusted to account for cultural knowledge and activities such as trapping, hunting, or knowing local languages. This change saw an increase in applications from Indigenous people, a trend BCWS aims to continue.
Recently, an exciting collaboration began between the BCWS’s Salish Unit Crew and the Lil’Wat Nation. The Owl Creek Cultural Burn Project took place on the traditional territory of the Lil’Wat Nation (Mount Currie), where the winter supply of huckleberries once nourished entire communities. Wanting to introduce fire back into the landscape as it was traditionally done, the BCWS jumped at the opportunity to work with the Lil’Wat Nation to see if they can produce more berries through cultural burning. This project, the first of its kind in coastal BC, also helped train young Indigenous firefighters. The Lil’Wat Nation and the BCWS hope to build on what they already feel is a special collaboration, showing other communities that it is possible to work together to restore cultural practices in BC and improve our province’s wildfire resilience in the process.
BC Wildfire Service Crews
Each year, the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) employs over 1,000 wildland firefighters, including Indigenous peoples, who work on one of four crew types across the province: initial attack, rapattack, parattack, and unit crews.
Initial attack crews (three- or four-person teams) are often the first to respond to new wildfires. They are regularly placed on standby, ready to deploy soon after a wildfire starts. Once deployed, they work and camp near the fire until it is put out. There are roughly 400 initial attack firefighters throughout BC, strategically stationed or relocated according to provincial needs. Due to the quick and effective response of these crews (they are independent, mobile, adaptive, and can be deployed with 1-3 days of supplies and gear), they’re able to put out approximately 94% of all new wildfires before 10 AM the next day.
Rapattack crews are specialized teams within the Initial Attack Program, trained to rappel from a helicopter into areas that are difficult to access by foot, vehicle, or aircraft. There are about 40 Rappattack firefighters based in Salmon Arm, which is centrally located to the majority of fires that require their response.
Parattack crews — sometimes called “smokejumpers” — are another type of specialized team within the Initial Attack Program, trained to parachute from fixed-wing aircraft (also known as “jumpships”) into remote and difficult-to-reach locations. Beyond the initial attack response, parattack crews also respond to medical emergencies, perform reconnaissance flights, and fight fires alongside unit crews. There are about 60 parattack firefighters based in two locations in the Prince George Fire Centre. One base is in Fort St John with a newly opened base in Mackenzie. These locations allow for increased fire response capabilities in northeastern BC. One of the most important pieces of the Parattack Program is the fixed-wing aircraft, which allows them to cover greater distances in a shorter amount of time than helicopters, while also carrying more gear and equipment.
Unit crews (20-person teams) are deployed to larger incidents for longer periods of time — wildfires that exceed the capacity of initial attack resources. While on deployment, which is usually for about two weeks, unit crews work in remote forestry environments, camping near the fireline or in established camps. There, led by four unit crew leaders and one supervisor, they conduct fire suppression, burn operations, establish pump and hose lines, and remove fuel and danger trees.
In addition to BCWS crews, thousands of contract firefighters, out-of-province agencies, military, and other partners join forces with the BCWS when required in response to BC wildfires. These volunteers and professionals provide all sorts of wildfire management support, like filling leadership roles to allow rest for BCWS staff and offering expertise that makes for more informed decision-making. These teams work together to effectively combat and manage wildfires throughout the province, protecting our people, infrastructure, and natural environment in the process.
Revitalizing Indigenous Employment within BCWS
Increasing the representation of Indigenous Peoples is a priority for the BC Wildfire Service.
More than ever, investments are being made in Indigenous recruitment and retention strategies, starting with community outreach and relationship building. Bootcamp proposals for wildfire crew members are also being solicited to help revitalize the Indigenous wildland firefighters.
BCWS supports potential recruits by providing resources like the Indigenous Applicant Advisory Service. This new service can help Indigenous applicants (First Nations, Métis or Inuit) interested in BC Public Service job positions, including temporary assignments, auxiliary appointments, permanent part-time and permanent full-time. Applicants can receive advice and guidance on the hiring system and process, including creating an online resume profile, techniques for tailoring resumes and cover letters to job postings and coaching on the interview process.
Honouring Indigenous land management knowledge and removing barriers to Indigenous recruitment and retention will continue to be a focus for BCWS to ensure they have the best wildfire response teams to protect our province.
To learn more about the BC Wildfire Service’s wildfire personnel and response tools, visit https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/wildfire-status/wildfire-response/wildfire-personnel-and-response-tools