Women north of 60 are blazing a trail learning how to fight wildfires

An all female, non-binary course in the Northwest is taking women through the dos and don’ts of fighting a wildfire.

Nearly 20 participants are learning to use the tools of the trade.

Jennifer Cockney says it’s been a confidence builder.

“I was super nervous about two things; the bugs and coming down south and the fitness test oh my goodness,” she says. “Yeah they made us run with 25 lbs on our back. I was just thinking this could be a kid on my back or my chihuahua.”

Cockney says it’s important to be ready for increased fires further north.

“Last year there was a brush fire around Husky Lakes,” she says. “And Husky Lakes is getting pretty popular. To protect the ISR, Inuviauluit settlement region, it’s important to me too. You’re looking at wildfires here in particular.

“There might not be trees in Tuk (Tuktoyaktuk) but we’re also learning about the crawling fires and the running fires and the different behaviours of fire.”

Climate change

According to the federal government, the number and intensity of forest fires across the country will increase as a result of the climate crisis.

The government is currently working on a series of reports outlining how the climate crisis will affect each region of the country.

“Compared to urban centres, rural and remote communities often experience greater impacts from climate change, particularly in the Arctic and Subarctic regions where changes in climate are occurring more rapidly than elsewhere in the country,” said a government report called Canada in a Changing Climate.

“These communities also tend to have fewer financial, human and formal institutional resources with which to respond to these changes.”

The reports will be issued in the fall of 2021 and into 2022.

If Canada’s own warning wasn’t strong enough, a report issued Aug. 9 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that human actions have gone unchecked for so long that it will take hundreds, possibly thousands of years for the earth to revert back to a healthy state.

Since April 1, nearly a thousand forest fires have burned in British Columbia. Both Manitoba and Ontario are also struggling with a high number of fires as a number of First Nations were forced to flee.

So far this year in the Northwest Territories, there have been 137 forest fires – 63 of those are still burning.

Learning to fight fires

The training is taking place this week at Frank’s Channel, an hour from Yellowknife, is for women in a supportive environment.

Vanessa Chocolate is going back to work now that her youngest is in school and sees seasonal firefighting as good fit for her family.

“They taught us how to switch the hose into another hose, while they clamp the hose we have to jump into the other side it is a tough thing, and the hoses are strong,” she says. “Once they put the water pump back on I was like ‘whoaaa somebody hold me back,’ so they held me back and we did it though.”

The group is learning from role models including Darcie Setzer, a crew member in Inuvik, N.W.T.

“You can definitely see in the classroom people are asking questions, paying attention, excited to learn,” Setzer says. “They will stay in the classroom even after and ask you things because they want to know what’s the next step and how they become a part of the fire crew.”

Yvonne Meulenboek is a fire crew leader in Norman Wells.

“It’s not just pound for pound strength,” she says. “There’s so much tactical stuff and other leadership roles women would be great at. We bring a lot to the table too so it’s not to compete with men but to fill the gaps to make a complete crew.”

The instructors say the training is a good start to boost the low numbers of women physically in the field.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been confused with the camp cook or plan section or the warehouse assistant which is great but that’s not what I’m here to do,” says Meulenboek. “You can feel a little minimized putting all this time and effort into this training into something you don’t feel other people see.”

With more interest in the program, the territory says it will offer more training next spring.

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