(Gary Falkenham at work in Nova Scotia. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN)
Gary Falkenham finishes putting his gear away in a tall green locker at a fire station in Sheet Harbour, Nova Scotia.
For Falkenham, fighting wildfires is his dream job.
“I was the first Mi’kmaw to be trained to fight wildfires,” he says. “If I could preach anything to anyone, it would be to get into it because it’s a good career choice.”
When he started, he had no experience and trained for three months.
Four days after his training finished, he was on a plane heading west, to the other side of the country – to fight a raging wildfire in British Columbia.
“The hardest thing was leaving the kids, that was the first time I’ve been away from the kids since they were born,” Falkenham told APTN News.
“My wife was 100 per cent supportive, she was the one who said to go, it would be a great experience. I got to spend 14 days in the woods fighting fires, it was phenomenal,” Falkenham says.
Falkenham, 36, has six children and has lived his entire life on a small piece of reserve land in Sheet Harbour on the Atlantic Ocean east of Halifax.
The land is administered by the band council in the Millbrook First Nation 90 km to the north.
Falkenham says his community has given him a lot of support.
Millbrook Chief Bob Gloade says Falkenham is admired in the community.
“As representative of the community, it is both an honor and a privilege to have somebody step up help other people in need, especially when it comes to a major disaster like this, going across the country, not only putting his life on the line,” says Gloade.
Before last spring, Falkenham was a carpenter and a lobster buyer.
“For the last eight or nine years I was the middle man, I worked directly from the fisherman, bought lobster and transported them,” he says.
It was a good job, but he wanted to be in the woods and protect the environment.
Three years ago, Falkenham decided he wanted to fight wildfires with a group called the Sustained Action Team.
“They are the ones that travel, they save the woods. That is the team you have to be on to be exported across Canada to fight fires. But, I did not have a whole lot of fire experience.”
When the job came up to work for the Department of Lands and Forestry of Nova Scotia, he knew it was a good career.
“I jumped at it, I love being in the outdoors, the wilderness, hunt, trap, fish, and this job came up that I could spend time in the woods and that would be a perfect fit for me,” he said.
His perseverance paid off.
(Falkenham, right, at work on the Burns Lake fire in British Columbia.)
Last spring Falkenham started training. He says a big part of why he got the job was his carpentry skills.
“When we are not fighting fires, we do a lot of maintenance around buildings, camps, and parks.”
Falkenham is part of the Sustained Action Team of Nova Scotia, a group of 40 specially trained wildfire fighters.
Each province has a team that are sent to wherever they are needed during the fire season which is from April to September.
Falkenham says last year the team went to Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario.
This year, four days after Falkenham finished his training, his team was called to the wildfires in B.C.
They joined about 300 to 400 firefighters at a camp near Burns Lake.
“Everyone does 14 to 20 days, some just arriving, leaving, people from everywhere. I didn’t know what to expect but the guys I worked with were excellent,” he says.
Moments later, his mother Shelley arrives at the station.
She is sporting a big smile, and gives her son a bigger hug.
She says she was glad he became a fireman, but was worried that he was sent to a fire right after training.
“I was happy for him, but the day that he flew, and I got a message from my cousin in B.C. and they saw him on the news, I thought wow, he is really there.”
(Gary’s mother Shelley says she’s happy for him but it took a bit to realize that he was actually in B.C. battling wildfires. Photo: Angel Moore/APTN)
Falkenham says he didn’t have time to be scared.
He says they started working right away. The days were 14 to 17 hours long, and by the time they returned to the camp they would eat and go to sleep.
“First couple of days, we were going to scout out areas, but I was a little nervous because I was still new, and my experience was out of the textbooks,” he says. “But in the end, we went and started fighting the fire and I was more comfortable with that.”
They fought the fire on the ground and did a lot of structure protection – attacking fires that were encroaching on homes.
In the end, they didn’t lose one house to the fire.
“It is hard to tell if we made progress, you are fighting a smaller picture inside a big picture, but we kept the fire back from the houses.”
On their last day, they stopped at a local A&W and Falkenham remembers a local man came up to them.
“He shook our hands and thanked us for saving his house,” he says. “I could hear the emotion in his voice so that was pretty cool. Makes you feel good.”
Shelley says she’s had a lot of positive responses about Gary.
“Everyone is saying they are proud, and he is a hero I got a lot of positive messages, and locally, people will go up to him and say you are doing good out there.”
His chief agrees.
“He is a great young man and definitely a role model in our community,” says Gloade.
The job of a wildfire fighter is seasonal, the fire season ends in September and begins again in April.
This suits Falkenham just fine.
He says this will give him time to be a dad.
“My kids are in hockey. Our winters are wrapped up at the rink. My family is the most important thing in my life. I hope to be a good role model for them and my community,” he says.