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Fatigued B.C. firefighters get help back at camp as marathon wildfire season takes its toll

Click to play video: 'Fatigued B.C. firefighters get help off the front lines' Fatigued B.C. firefighters get help off the front lines
WATCH: The 2021 forest fire season has been even harder on firefighters than usual. But as John Hua reports, they have more services at their disposal to maintain both their physical and mental health – Aug 24, 2021

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect the correct number of active wildfires in the province.

For crews battling B.C.’s wildfires, it’s been an endless summer.

The COVID-19 pandemic, a historic heat wave and limited help available from outside the province have combined to make this wildfire season feel like an endless slog in steel-toed boots.

“With that increased fatigue, we’re starting to see more safety concerns,” Todd Nessman of the BC Wildfire Service said.

When they’re not on the front lines, firefighters are getting more support to protect their mental and physical well-being so they can continue the fight on the fire line.

Arthur Andrews, a BC Wildfire health services coordinator, has combined his experience as a firefighter and athletic therapist to provide treatment that aims to prevent small injuries from flaring up.

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Read more: Cooler weather credited for fewer new daily wildfires, B.C. officials say

“You’re always going, especially now where some crews are four or five deployments for two-week deployments in. And it’s definitely difficult to try to find the time to take care of yourself,” he said.

“The longer the seasons go on and the mental and physical stress add up, that’s when fatigue sets in,” he said. “That’s when you’re more at risk to when those trips and slips turn into falls,” he said.

A small group of chiropractors and massage therapists, along with a high school student, have also volunteered their services at the camp.

Dr. Stephen Karpuk says volunteers have treated close to 150 staff and personnel in the evenings over the past three weeks pro bono.

More than 1,500 wildfires have burned across this province this year, about 250 of which are active.

Nessman said conditions are trending in the right direction with the number of fires that threaten public safety and property dropping down to two dozen from 30 early this month.

He also said cooler temperatures have helped curtail significant fire growth in recent days and crews are making “some excellent progress” on some of the larger blazes.

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Click to play video: 'B.C. Wildfire Service official says progress being made, have not had significant growth in fire activity' B.C. Wildfire Service official says progress being made, have not had significant growth in fire activity
B.C. Wildfire Service official says progress being made, have not had significant growth in fire activity – Aug 24, 2021

While progress is being made, the battle is far from over and wildfire season is a marathon, not a sprint.

“We’ve been working really hard to implement resources available to all of our staff to ensure that they can kind of stay on top of their fatigue levels and manage their mental well-being,” BC Wildfire organizational development manager Jana Stratemeyer-Trinczek said.

Seeing what’s at stake has added to the stress of the job, but having mental health support on-site is allowing crew members who might otherwise grin and bear it choose instead to share the burden.

“We are seeing that culture shift. We’re seeing the conversations happen more and more,” Stratemeyer-Trinczek said.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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