Daniel Chimko grew up knowing he wanted to work outdoors and in nature.
“Growing up, you know, I grew up in Kitimat and my dad had an industrial company and I always said nope, when I grow up I want to have a job where I’m working outside or somehow connected with nature,” Chimko said.
Born and raised in Cablecar, Chimko went to the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George. During his final few years there, he decided to join a few friends in applying for the BC Wildlife Service as a wildfire firefighter.
“It took me a couple of years to get in because back then, it was quite competitive to become a firefighter,” Chimko said. “There was, you know, 1,500 applicants every year for 60 to 80 positions.”
When he got in, Chimko was placed on an initial attack crew, a three-person team that are usually the first on scene of a new wildfire, and are responsible for things such as setting up water pumps, removing fuel from the fire’s path, and digging fire guards to control or extinguish the blaze.
Chimko and the rest of his crew were situated in Fort Nelson in northeast B.C., and he moved into trailer-like accommodations with 12 other young people who all lived up there for the summer.
“It was an interesting place to work, too, because the fire season up there was quite early, just because of their seasonal variations compared to other places in the province,” he said. “So they’d get their lightning at, like, you know, end of May and throughout June, and sort of beginning of July, and then it would start to get rainy. It was almost like fall would get started early up there. But that’s when the rest of the province and other parts of the country were starting to get their fire seasons, so you’d get a chance to travel quite a bit with that posting.”
Chimko said the first part of training for the position, after passing the rigorous interview, is a fitness test, which is quite gruelling and there’s always a few people who don’t make it through. After that comes a training boot camp, consisting of about a week of 12-hour days.
Once you get through all that, it’s on to fires.
First years, Chimko said, are pump operators, so you’re taught how to pump, as well as how to fix and maintain the pump and waterlines. After that, your position changes depending on your year and how much turnover there was for more experienced firefighters.
In his second year, Chimko became an initial attack crew crew leader.
“The average initial attack fire, you’d only be in charge of your crew of three or potentially six of you, if you have two crews going to a fire. But if that fire is to grow — and I had the opportunity on a few fires where you have a unit crew of 20 guys come in, and some heavy duty equipment, and maybe multiple aircraft,” he said. “So then it gets really busy from a management perspective, trying to keep track of everything and check up on everybody, make sure everybody is safe and keep a close eye on the fire and make sure it stays under control.”
Chimko got to go to Ontario, the Kootenays, Prince George, McBride, and Valemount to name a few places. He said the work was great experience and helped in his career and everyday life going forward, as he was better able to manage busy situations.
He also added that the experience fighting forest fires in and of itself was amazing, as he got to see and do things that he would likely never get a chance to see and do otherwise.
“There are so very remote places in Northeast B.C. and it’s just, you know, kind of incredible being dropped off in the middle of nowhere somewhere, and, you know, overlooking a river or a lake and working for several days, 16 hours a day usually you’re working,” he said. “And, you know, you just crawl into your sleeping bag in your clothes, completely covered in soot after you’ve eaten a cold can of beans or chili or something.”
Chimko said one of the unusual facts he learned in his time with the BC Wildlife Service is that you can boil water in a bottle over of the fire and the plastic bottle won’t melt. This came in very handy when trying to boil water for a cup of coffee in the mornings.
The biggest fire he ever fought was in Ontario, several hours north of Thunder Bay. The fire was several hundred hectares and had more 100 firefighters working on it. Chimko and his team had one section and ran three kilometres of hose around the perimeter of the fire.
“It was an interesting situation. We hadn’t really dealt with something like that as an attack crew,” he said. “You’re putting out little fires as you go along, just controlling the perimeter.”
Chimko said they connected with the local fire-fighters, who helped them out when needed, and they were on that fire for a full two weeks before it was able to be controlled by just the local firefighters.
“Lots of times with those big, big fires, it’s really hard to actually put them out, you’re actually just keeping them under control, you’re getting a perimeter around them, and waiting for the weather to do its work,” he said, adding that they are often monitored for months, putting out hot spots as required.
Chimko said the other cool thing about being on an initial attack team was getting to ride in helicopters and learning how to do a hover exit. A hover exit, he explained, occurs when the helicopter can’t land for one reason or another, so those exiting have to lower themselves down and hang, and the helicopter will lower them down until their feet touch and they let go.
“I’ve been dropped off right on, you know, mountainsides and onto big stumps on mountainsides, or in the middle of creeks.”
Chimko fought forest fires for five summers, through the last couple years of university and for a few summers afterward. He then decided to stay in Kitimat after meeting his now-wife, Natalie, while he was home visiting one time, because her whole life was here and after they discussed it for a bit, he realized his was too.
Chimko now co-owns a woodworking company in Kitimat and has for many years. He said he misses the days of fighting forest fires, but it isn’t something he’d do again nowadays.
He and his family have a hobby farm at their house in Cablecar, with a llama, an alpaca, chickens, ducks, bees, cats, and their dog, Lizzie. Each animal has their use, he said, and some provide added benefits, such as the llama and the alpaca keeping the grass at their house trimmed.
“We haven’t owned a lawn mower in years,” Chimko said.
Chimko said he’s happy with the farm and the memories he has of his time fighting forest fires, and he’s excited for a calm retirement when the day arrives.
“I just want to grow vegetables in my retirement, basically. That would work for me.”