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Different fires

May 24, 2023

Man with soot on his face standing in a smoky forest charred by wild fires.

How a return to wildfire fighting in BC helped Writing grad Kelly Bouchard reboot from the stress and exhaustion of his work with Toronto’s homeless.

I’m carrying a 55-pound water pump up a mountain. It’s tied to my back with a length of high-pressure hose, the way they taught me 13 years ago at BC Wildfire boot camp. The hose cuts into my chest, making it hard to breathe. My knees hurt. They started hurting when I turned 30 and haven’t stopped, which is maybe why most 34-year-olds don’t fight wildfires. Now and then, I get a lung full of smoke from the fire churning away in the tree-covered scree to my left. My backpack, which I’ve spun to my front to make room for the pump, keeps falling forward and tripping me up. Occasionally, I slip and claw at the rock for purchase.

It’s uncomfortable, but I couldn’t be happier.

Burnt trees in a smoky forest.
A fire on the BC-Yukon border. Photo by Kelly Bouchard

I’ve returned to the BC Wildfire Service after seven years away. Wildfire fighting in the summers paid for my Writing degree at the University of Victoria, but in 2015, three years after graduating, I moved to Toronto for a career change. I earned a community work diploma and took jobs as an outreach worker in the city’s homeless encampments and at a drop-in centre for people experiencing homelessness and poverty. In January of 2022, I burned out. Every week, people I cared about died from overdoses or preventable disease. I’d work into the night—maybe cleaning a client’s apartment to avoid an eviction, maybe calling the intake line repeatedly to find an available shelter bed—and awake soul-weary and exhausted.

My partner, Selin, and I debated what to do. We agreed I was too passionate about the issue of homelessness to leave the work permanently; I just needed a break. I also needed to work. Toronto rent wasn’t cheap.

Anyway, the work itself wasn’t the problem. It was more the cumulative emotional toll coupled with a sense I wasn’t fixing any real problems. I wasn’t increasing the housing stock or lowering Toronto’s rent. I’d help one person find housing and another would be evicted. It was like treating burn victims while the fire that burned them raged unchecked. Which was why, I said, a summer with BC Wildfire might be the perfect thing.

Selin wasn’t exactly thrilled. She hadn’t signed up for a long-distance relationship, or the stress of having a firefighting boyfriend. But I made a compelling case. Firefighting paid well, was far less emotionally taxing than social services, and the effects of actions on the fire line were pleasingly direct. Put more water on the fire, it goes out quicker. Walk faster and the pump gets where it needs to go sooner. Sure, sometimes a fire leapt your line and rampaged across the landscape like a denizen of hell, but even then the prevailing sense was of losing to a superior opponent not that your approach was misguided from the start. You were always, at least, fighting the actual fire.

“Besides,” I said to clinch the thing. “It’s just one season.”

Several months later, here I am. At a moss-covered shelf, I lower the pump to the ground and collapse next to it, breathing heavily and admiring the view. The fire straddles the Yukon border in BC’s Northwest: 110 hectares of slow-moving ground fire crawling up a valley side. From where I’m sitting, I can see through a veil of smoke to the startlingly-green lake at the valley’s bottom which we’re pumping into two kilometers of hose strung up the fire’s steepest flank. The pump I carried will boost the pressure in that hose to sustain our work around the fire’s uppermost edge, but the hose and the rest of my crew have yet to reach me. The nearest members are 100 metres below, using nozzles to extinguish the fire’s edge.

I look across the slope, trying to scout a sensible route around the cliffs that abut the fire’s top.

Friends thought I was crazy going wildfire fighting for a break, but out here my mind is unconflicted, moving from one task to the next. It’s the opposite of my experience in social services, where nagging doubts preoccupied me.

The long hours of relative mental quiet out in the woods have had interesting results. My third evening on this fire—after a 14-hour workday, a 20-minute helicopter flight back to camp, dinner with the crew in a plywood mess hall, and a cold shower in a modular trailer—I crawled into my tent and cried as I hadn’t for years. I thought of deceased clients I never mourned. I relived frantic overdose responses I’d half forgotten.

After long days of solving concrete problems with physical solutions, I find myself more emotional than I was at the end of my first stint in homeless services. Under the constant weight of fresh tragedies, I adapted by going numb. Free of that weight, I’ve found catharsis, and if my aching body is paying a toll for my mind’s peace, that’s fine with me. The work has its own pleasures.

I leave the pump and take a roll of pink surveyor’s ribbon from my backpack, picking my way across the slope. I hang ribbons from trees every 30 metres creating a path around the fire other crew members will follow. First, a cutting pair will clear a trail with chainsaws, then others will lay down hose, connect my pump and start putting wet on hot. It all makes sense, and the satisfaction it brings contrasts sharply with the futility I felt in Toronto.

Not that I’m thinking about any of that as I scramble over boulders and scree. I cross and re-cross the same terrain, pulling and rehanging ribbons to optimize my line, slowly making my way out of the trees onto an exposed rock face. Off to my left, a corridor of mountains curves to the blue horizon. I can’t help but smile. The work isn’t easy, but I’m grateful to be out here nursing my knees through one more season. Turns out it’s just the break I needed. And you can’t beat that view.

—Kelly Bouchard, BA ’14

Kelly Bouchard is a writer and outreach worker living in downtown Toronto.

This article appears in the UVic Torch alumni magazine.

For more Torch stories, go to the UVic Torch alumni magazine page.