When Reese Lange was in kindergarten, she dreamed of joining the police. But it was in high school that she realized her true calling.
The 21-year-old is now part of an army of young men and women, many of them college students, who are spending their summer battling what could be one of Canada’s worst fire seasons on record.
They are drawn together by a sense of duty and comradeship.
But the risks they face were brought home last week by the death in British Columbia of Devyn Gale, a nursing student. Aged just 19, Gale was already in her third summer as a wildland firefighter when she was crushed by a falling tree as her team battled an out-of-control blaze near her hometown of Revelstoke in the southern Interior.
Lange is undergoing firefighting training at Lakeland College in Vermilion, central Alberta, but has already seen action battling blazes in the province this summer. She said Gale’s death was “devastating” but only made her more determined.
“I feel like it makes me want to be a firefighter more and kind of learn more so that I can protect myself and my teammates,” said Lange.
She said the tragedy had bonded her class of 31 student firefighters, underscoring their shared goals of saving lives and watching each other’s backs.
The B.C. Wildfire Service said in a statement that it employs about 1,600 seasonal personnel each year, and about a third are post-secondary students working during their summer vacation.
“As our core wildfire season happens at a time when many students have their summer break, they are often looking for work at that time. As such, 30 to 35 per cent of them would normally be expected to return to school in the fall,” said the statement.
Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, said “a great deal of students” are involved in wildland firefighting.
Wildland firefighters are often hired for one pay season, typically between the end of May and mid-September. He said that in summer months, the number of paid wildland firefighters spikes compared to volunteer firefighters.
“We don’t see a big increase of volunteerism for those four months that students are back at home, away from school,” he said.
“We do see an increase of wildland firefighters, because it’s a pay opportunity, whereas volunteering in your communities is not a pay opportunity.”
The starting hourly wage for firefighters in B.C. ranges from $26 to $30 per hour with more for overtime and standby hours.
But for some young firefighters, it’s not just about the pay. It’s a calling.
Lange’s classmate Mark Uwazny, 21, said he decided to become a firefighter in Grade 9 after he was involved in the rescue of a fellow Boy Scout who had gone into thermal shock during a winter survival challenge.
“(It was) the way that we just kind of all came together as a community to make sure that this one person got everything that they needed in a timely fashion,” said Uwazny.
From that moment on, his family expected him to work in the emergency services.
Uwazny said his family was “happy and excited” when he decided to become a firefighter through Lakeland’s training course.
In May, Uwazny and Lange spent five or six evenings fighting wildfires that burned about 62 square kilometres in Parkland County, west of Edmonton.
Seeing a wildfire up close for the first time was an “unreal and crazy” experience, said Lange.
Already they feel like they are part of the firefighting community, and Uwazny said the loss of Gale felt like “losing a family member.”
“In our class, there are 31 of us (it’s) something that could happen to one of us and there goes your family,” said Uwazny.
But the other part of being in a family is the strength of the bonds, he added.
Some young firefighters only last a few seasons. Jennifer Seguin lasted nine, on and off.
She joined the BC Wildfire Service in summer 2005, when she was on break from studying social work at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
Like Gale, she was 19 at the time. She said news of Gale’s death left her in “shock and complete devastation,” as Gale’s circumstances resonated with her own former life. Seguin now works in health care in Manitoba.
“Devyn’s passing is such a tragedy as she was one of many young people doing this job she was headed in a direction where she was going to give back to the community as a nurse and help other people along their health journey,” said Seguin, her voice trembling.
She said firefighting was a tough job of sacrifice, sometimes involving 16-hour days in remote locations.
Seguin recalled a “scary” encounter in 2017 when her crew faced a fire in Princeton, B.C.
“We were one of the first crews on scene and the conditions were very dry, very hot. The wind was blowing and it was an intensity that required we pulled away from the fire,” she said.
“We had to get close to understand what the nature of it was. And when we knew that there wasn’t anything we could do with the resources we had we pulled back.”
In addition to the extreme conditions, the job also meant missing out on traditional summer activities, or major life events like a friend’s wedding.
But it was an experience Seguin said she “wouldn’t trade for anything.”
“I am very grateful and privileged that I had the opportunity and that I was able to participate,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2023.