Unlike most teenagers, Shayla Turcotte didn’t watch from the sidelines as wildfires ripped through forests bordering her community.
Turcotte has proudly worn muddy turnout gear and steel-toed boots since she was first introduced to wildland firefighting at just 16 years old in Midway.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Turcotte’s passion for firefighting alongside a crew of like-minded individuals is as she sees it, “as close as it gets to a feeling of family.”
“In Grade 12, there was a class called Fire Suppression 12 and the top two students were granted a spot as junior initial attack firefighters on crews in Grand Forks for the ministry of dorests. I was the only girl on the initial attack crew of four. From there, I continued to move up the ladder and was a wildland firefighter at the age of 16 for nine years. During my last four years I ran a unit crew. Then I went into nursing for eight-and-a-half years and I’m now transitioning from part-time firefighting in Lake Country to a full-time firefighting career here in the Okanagan Valley.”
To date, Turcotte’s experiences have been positive in a profession that continues to be dominated by men.
“I have never come across any issues being female. I worked a little harder and pushed myself to prove to myself I should be in those roles just as much as anybody else. Nowadays, the profession is encouraging women who meet all the criteria to apply. Just as my nursing career shows, there’s more males beginning to nurse as well. It’s a whole shift in the way the world is looking at these traditionally male- and female-dominated roles.”
Within the District of Lake Country, firefighters at all halls are paid-on-call and their primary focus is on structural versus wildland fires. There are seven full-time members at the main firehall on Okanagan Centre Road East (Station 71) including the fire chief and deputy chief. Other halls are located in Carr’s Landing (Station 81) and Oyama (Station 91).
In addition to the considerable amount of time devoted to training, medical and fire call-outs, Lake Country firefighters volunteer for food drives, school and park events, high school demonstrations and other community service activities. There is also a junior program for high school students to learn about structural firefighting and to participate in training which could lead to a paid, on-call position within Lake Country.
In Turcotte’s experience, the initial training and attempting to balance firefighting with full-time employment was challenging.
“We are trained to the same standard that any international firefighter has. Most of us also have full-time jobs and training three days a week as well. For myself, trying to fit in a full-time nursing job as well as the initial firefighting training, was definitely challenging at times.
“There were times when I was at fire practice until about 10 p.m. and then I would quickly change into my nursing uniform and run off to do a night shift at the hospital.”
The personal sacrifices firefighters and their families make are often overlooked while scientists worldwide forecast a future of global wildfire crisis with devastating infernos. The need for firefighters is greater now than ever before as witnessed last summer in the B.C. Interior when Turcotte and crews spent two solid months of one-week firefighting deployments to Ashcroft, Merritt, Spences Bridge, White Lake, Fintry and Logan Lake.
What drives firefighters into the flames?
For Turcotte, it’s a passion and a deep desire to help.
“I feel a great sense of crew bonding. We were deployed for a week each time last summer so I spent one week with a handful of people from not only Lake Country Station 71, but also firefighters from Carr’s Landing and Oyama.
“A mixed group was on each truck so I got to spend some time with them and to know them as people. It was a great opportunity to be able to share my knowledge of wildland fires to crew who hadn’t seen that kind of fire before.
“It was also eye opening. There were more interface fires during 2021 than from 2003 to 2013 when I was fighting wildland fires. We also spent a considerable amount of time interacting with some community members who didn’t want to evacuate.
“We tried to make them feel safe, and at the same time, worked on fire smarting their homes as much as we could.”
When asked what it takes to be a firefighter, Turcotte offers a few tips: “A little life experience is beneficial. You do see a lot of different things so you need to be able to handle yourself in a collected manner because you’re there to support whatever call you go to whether it’s a motor vehicle accident, a medical or structure fire. Maturity and a positive attitude are important as well as an openness and willingness to learn. You must be able to admit when you don’t know something and be open to feedback.”
Turcotte’s suggestions for anyone considering firefighting: “If you’re interested, you should definitely explore it. Lake Country is looking for great people to come and work for them. You will receive great training and a great opportunity. It’s an amazing family. Definitely start asking questions and venture down that route if it’s something you really want to take seriously.
“I love the family dynamic. Everyone in firefighting becomes an extension of your family. The crew morale is something you can’t find anywhere else and you’ll be helping out the community.”