The ground cover in the forests outside Baie Comeau, Quebec, was mostly caribou moss, and it was several feet deep, according to Ken Canfield, a district forester with the Maine Forest Service in Gray.
“It was like walking around on a big sponge,” he said. “When it’s wet, you could drop a match on it and nothing would happen. But when it’s dry, the slightest little thing and it just explodes.”
That moss, and all of northern Quebec, has been especially dry this summer. There have been more forest fires than average, according to the Meteorological Service of Canada – at least 550 reported so far.
“That’s why they needed us,” Canfield said. He was part of a 21-member team of Maine and New Hampshire foresters and firefighters who spent the past two weeks stationed at a logging camp outside Baie Comeau, about 430 miles north of Quebec City.
The team, which included people from Mechanic Falls, Greene, Paris, Eustis and Bath, returned home Sunday night.
“It wasn’t anything crazy,” Canfield said. “They keep you pretty safe and you’re well-trained. It’s typical forest work, but it’s very exciting and very satisfying.”
The group left Maine on June 14, part of the response from the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact, a collection of seven U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and three National Forests that have agreed to help one another fight forest fires.
Training and education are big parts of what the compact does, but the main goal is to make sure there are plenty of skilled people ready to respond around the region in case of emergency.
“We don’t want to take away all of a state’s emergency personnel,” said Tom Parent, the compact’s executive director. “That’s really the whole premise. The more states you can draw resources from, the better you can respond to an emergency without leaving any other area in danger.”
Air tankers from Quebec helped fight fires in Maine as recently as 2002, but that province has needed help the past three years. This is the third year straight that Quebec has asked for the compact’s help. Canfield’s crew was the second sent from Maine this summer. They left after two weeks on the fire lines. A third crew from Maine could be bound for the area later this summer, if the dry weather persists.
47 fires ‘out of control’
“The day we arrived, they’d had a lightning storm the night before,” Canfield said. “There were 64 fires reported in our area, and 47 of them were considered out of control.”
The contingent included Maine Forest Service rangers and foresters from across the state, as well as some local firefighters.
Most of the areas they worked out of were remote, without roads or structures.
Most of the firefighting was done from the air. Sluice bombers and helicopters dumped buckets of water on the big blazes. Then smaller helicopters with infrared cameras scanned for areas that were still burning, and delivered line crews there.
Crews of six or seven would travel by small helicopter to an area and land in a swamp. They’d chop down some trees to create landing pads for larger helicopters and begin walking the area.
“You use your nose and your eyes,” Canfield said. “Sometimes, you can walk for a mile in the fire line and find six hot spots. Others, you go 500 feet and find 20 fires.”
The crews traveled light. Each carried his own safety and first-aid gear, an emergency fire shelter and a Pulaski – a firefighting tool that combines an ax and a hoe. The crew also carried at least one chain saw and a portable water pump and hose.
“There are little lakes and streams everywhere and you can use some of that to put out big fires,” he said.
Mostly, they were looking for embers.
“The areas we were walking in had already burned. We were looking for something small, a little fleck of something still smoking,” Canfield said. “It could be a tiny little piece of ash, but the biggest we found was a couple of big logs that were still burning.”
The job is to extinguish the burning material, bury it in dirt and move on.
They spent 11 to 12 hours each day on the line, then retired to Camp Outardes, a logging camp about 50 miles from the main blazes. They had showers, clean beds, good food and telephones.
“What we were doing was inherently dangerous,” he said. “Fighting fires, flying around in helicopters and landing in swamps – that is dangerous. But everyone was very well-trained, and I never once felt in danger. I never feared for my life.”