Members of the Rocky Mountain firefighters camped out in Elko. The unit was cared for by volunteers at the community hall.

More than one kind of hero helping with East Kootenay firefighting efforts

Volunteers host firefighters in Elko Hall

It’s day 10 of 14 for the Rocky Mountain Unit crew.

As the team of 20 firefighters pull into the smoky town of Elko, they park their trucks at the Community Hall.

With green and blue tents staked up across the yard at the small centre, this is where they stay for the night.

One by one they pile out of the Province-issued pickup trucks, chainsaws lined neatly down the sides of the box.

A pair of black, sooty boots drop out of one of the trucks, and two weary feet dangle there.

Inside the community hall, Phyllis Johnson is just putting the finishing touches on the dinner she has prepared.

She and Beth Shaw are volunteers at the Elko hall who started preparing meals for groups of firefighters earlier this summer.

“They always get homecooked meals,” said Johnson. “Tonight they’re having shepherd’s pie.”

The crews camp outside in tents, and the women set up breakfast and dinner for approximately 20 hungry men and women each day.

“No one donates the food,” said Johnson, explaining that they buy the groceries for the crews who come and go. “There isn’t any place local, we don’t have a lot of hotels or anything in the area.”

The firefighters come to the hall each night during their 14-day rotation, showering at the facility and using extra toiletries that have been donated by members of the community.

The pair feed the crews at precisely 6:30 a.m. before they head off for the day, and dinner at 7:30 p.m. to end the day.

“When they come in at night they’re black, they’re in their fire-retardant gear and they have to be looked after really quickly,” she said.

One particular issue is the lack of laundry facilities for the workers, who in most cases must bring clean clothing for the entire 14-day rotation.

“They’re pretty private and they’re here to do their job,” said Johnson. “They work long hours.”

The crews don’t have volunteers like Johnson and Shaw everywhere they go.

“It’s absolutely incredible what they’re doing,” said Niall Curley, talking about the meals they receive each day. “Since we started back in June, we’ve been pretty much on the go all the time.”

The Rocky Mountain Unit crew is based out of Cranbrook, and are fighting fires on the border of Montana, near Newgate.

The crew has been sent all over the province this season. Sometimes, they’re living in camps and eating canned goods on a daily basis.

“Ideally, this situation that we have right now where we have people cooking for us, we come back and we have dinner made, we can get a lot more sleep,” said Kiah Allen.

The last few days haven’t been as intense for the crews, as they are gaining some ground on the Canadian side.

The B.C. crew is working in conjunction with American firefighting teams to battle the blaze, which is raging across northern Montana.

“We’re working with the hot-shot crews in the States,” said Allen. “There’s a small part in Canada and a bigger part that’s in the states…we’re just trying to protect our side.”

“Every day we meet up with the Americans right on the border,” said Francis Milne.

He says that because this is their zone, they’re used to fighting fires in these types of forests, but the conditions have been different from previous seasons.

“It’s been a pretty explosive year,” said Milne. “We’ve seen some things earlier this season further north.”

The crew is hoping rain will soon help quell the flames, exacerbated by the hot, dry summer.

“This is what makes the 14-day challenge a lot easier,” said Curley, arms around his crew mates shoulders, forming one long smiling line. “You have a group of people together like this, it makes it a hell of a lot easier.”

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