Kara McCurdy has 23 years of firefighting under her belt. And her lengthy experience is perhaps why she’s still smiling after some scary experiences during two weeks in Alberta’s wildfire region.

The Department of Natural Resources fire prevention officer led a crew of 20 firefighters from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Their task: putting out hot spots around the only highway and power grid between Edmonton and Fort McMurray, considered a high-priority area.

The team traveled daily in tree-skimming helicopters that dropped them off in areas of scorched earth. In the remote wilderness, McCurdy says the severe thunder and lightning storms are what she found most nerve-wracking.

“To be out in the woods, you have nowhere…to be protected from the thunder systems. And to be stuck on the fire line with trees that already have burnt root systems, falling around with the wind, and the thunder and lightning, the hail and rain.

Ground-shaking thunderstorms

“You could get hit in the head with something flying around around you,(that) is more of a threat than anything.”

A helicopter flies above a wildfire burning near the Tallcree First Nations (Alberta Wildfire Info)

Twice, she says, the storm risk was so high, that crews were evacuated out by helicopter. But they were often stuck in the storms, where they had no choice but to seek shelter under trees, and even hid under a piece of plastic.

“Trees around us just tumbling down, you can hear them crashing. [It was] almost like being in a hurricane back here in Nova Scotia.”

There was no escaping the thunderstorms even at night. The storms would roll in nightly as they tried to sleep in tents at their base camp in Wandering River, she said.

High-alert for bears

Her other memorable experience was when she and two of her teammates had to run from a black bear which she says “were everywhere.”

“There was one day that we had a bear kind of huff at us because we were too close to it. The guys said it was pretty big the way it was stomping around the woods. I fell down, I tumbled down the hill, chasing after the guys trying to get out of there. Yep, it was good times,” she said with a laugh.

McCurdy, also an experienced forest technician, says the crew ran back to the helipad. Meanwhile, they could hear the bear making chomping noises with its teeth as a warning until it went off in another direction. The team was on high alert for bears for the next couple of days, she says.

When they arrived, the fire covered an estimated 11,000 hectares of land, about three-quarters of the size of Cape Breton County. By the time they left, the fire had grown to 13,700 hectares.

All in all, she says it was an “A1, top notch” effort by her crew. Helped by lots of rain, she says hot spots in their 20-kilometre fire zone were put out by the time they left. They have since been relieved by crews from the United States.

The Working Forest