Scorched trees from fire is shown from above where the Parry Sound 33 forest fire has burnt thousands of hectares of land near Britt, Ont., on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

‘Hot and dirty work:’ Commander describes fighting massive Ontario wildfire

Ontario has seen more than 1,000 forest fires so far this year, compared to 561 in all of 2017.

From a helicopter flying over a smouldering swath of northeastern Ontario, Garry Harland has a clear view of where the firefighters under his command are working to extinguish a massive blaze that’s become known as Parry Sound 33.

The incident commander is focused on bringing the wildfire that has been burning for nearly a month under control, but progress takes time and a lot of effort.

“Fire is a momentum beast,” Harland told The Canadian Press. “You fight a fire sort of like you eat an elephant … in small bits.”

Ontario has seen more than 1,000 forest fires so far this year, compared to 561 in all of 2017. While the vast majority have either been extinguished or controlled, Parry Sound 33 remains one of the bigger blazes that is still active, and out of control.

In the past few weeks, the fire — which is more than 110 square kilometres in size — threatened the Trans-Canada Highway, forced evacuations in some communities and sent heavy, grey smoke over surrounding areas.

From the air on a clear, sunny day, the land that has been scorched by the blaze looked grey and ashy, making firefighters dressed in bright yellow suits easy to see as they worked with hoses.

Up to 556 firefighters have been working on the blaze since it began, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Each crew is made of four firefighters and is responsible for about a kilometre of the fire perimeter, said Harland.

Crews who leave a base camp located in Britt, Ont., about 72 kilometres north of the town of Parry Sound, Ont., head out by helicopter to areas in the fire zone where they spend several days on the front lines, Harland said. They have to take equipment such as hose packs, water pumps and tool kits with them, as well as food and camping gear, he said.

“For the crews working on the lines, it is hot and dirty work,” said Harland, who has been helping fight fires for 35 years. “And some folks have worked damn hard on this fire.”

Some of the crews have come from as far as Mexico and the U.S. to help, Harland said.

“The Mexicans are very organized hard workers,” he said. “They are doing dynamite work out there for us.”

Crews recently saw their efforts pay off when the status of Parry Sound 33 went from “not under control” to “being held,” last week, pushing the blaze closer to being brought under control.

Harland said firefighters are now working hard to make sure the blaze is contained.

“Our focus this whole time has been on the northeast part of the fire, because it is where it is actively spreading,” he said.

Ian Staley, a fire behaviour analyst on Parry Sound 33 who helps decide where to focus resources, said crews have to continuously be aware of the risks of being on the front lines.

“They need to be really cognisant of the activity on the line where they are working to make sure a fire will not get behind them and outflank them,” said Staley, who used to be on the front lines himself in the past.

“They also need to be cognisant of falling trees, especially in this area because the trees are quite shallow rooted.”

For Harland, the coming days could bring major milestones.

“In the next week here, we expect to cross off big chunks of the fire perimeter,” he said. “The last thing we want is another fire like Parry Sound 33.”

Related: B.C. Wildfires 2018: Province calls for federal aid

Related: B.C. declares state of emergency as more than 560 wildfires rage

Gabriele Roy, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Suspected spill kills hundreds of crayfish, coho in Langley river

A fish kill in the Nicomekl has a biologist concerned for the health of the local ecosystem.

Rams harvest sweet victory in win over Huskers

The Chilliwack team found itself pushed back again and again.

WATCH: Cops for Cancer bring message of hope to Langley school

Young cancer survivors are traveling with the fundraising bike ride.

Langley venue of glass provides bright stage for charity art show

West Fine Arts Show runs Friday to Sunday at South Langley’s Glass House Estate Winery.

Driver of pickup stolen from Langley crashes into car in Abbotsford

No serious injuries in collision on Monday night

B.C. RCMP turn to Const. Scarecrow to shock speeders into slowing down

New addition will watch over drivers from a Coquitlam median for first-of-its-kind pilot in Canada

Aldergrove soccer forward enjoys scoring spree

UFV Cascades’ Jhaj named Canada West second star of the week

B.C. home to 1/3 of Canada’s overdose deaths in first 3 months of the year

There were 1,036 overdose deaths in the first three months of the year, with 94 per cent accidental

B.C. candidate moves from hospice care to council race

He beat terminal cancer twice and entered hospice when he decided to run for council.

Canadian tobacco exec pushes back against vaping health concerns

A warning from Interior Health about the unknown health risks of vaping is getting a partial rebuke

New ‘meowyoral’ race featuring felines announced by B.C. animal shelter

Organizers hope the cat election will generate attention for shelter and local municipal election

Ministry of Agriculture commits $300,000 to help B.C. farmers obtain land

B.C. Land Matching Program supports access to affordable farmland for young farmers

Lower Mainland city calls for slower trains near popular beach

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said ‘it’s the least we can do’

Most Read