Condolences poured in Thursday for family and friends of four firefighters who died Tuesday in a crash on Highway 1 west of Kamloops, the latest casualties in what has been a long and grim season for fire crews.
The firefighters, B.C. Wildfire Service contractors, were working for Tomahawk Ventures, which was hired by the province to fight fires. They were returning home from work near Fort St. James when their Ford F-350 pickup lost control on a bend, crossed the centre line and crashed head-on into a semi-tractor trailer.
Three of the firefighters have been identified by family and friends as Kenneth Patrick, 37, Blain Sonnenberg and Jaxon Billyboy-Bowe.
Sheldon Bowe said his 19-year-old son had just graduated from high school in Williams Lake this year. He had been through a rough time dealing with the death of his grandfather, a cousin and a best friend, but had found direction and purpose working to fight fires.
“He went through a lot to get to where he was,” said Bowe. “He was strong-minded. He knew what he wanted to do and to firefight, that was his choice of what he wanted to do.”
Billyboy-Bowe, who his father described as a kind-hearted caregiver, was just completing his third 14-day tour, he said.
“I’m assuming they were tired, happy to get off, and rushing to get back home to his family and friends again.”
Tomahawk Ventures released a statement Thursday asking for privacy while those affected grieve.
“The four young men involved were not only employees; they were family,” read the note from Tomahawk’s Aaron Duczak. “Currently our thoughts, prayers and focus are on these families and providing support to them during this horrifically difficult time.”
Duczak said “the wildland firefighting community has lost four good ones and they are irreplaceable.”
The B.C. Wildfire Service has relied on hundreds of contractors to back up their roster of Type 1 primary-attack firefighters this season, who provide what are classified as Types 2 and 3 support services.
They’ve worked almost non-stop this season at tasks such as lower-risk fire attack, tree falling, mapping, fire guard planning, operating heavy equipment, mop-up operations and patrol duties.
And news of these deaths, on top of four others in B.C. and the Northwest Territories this year, was “devastating” to those in the close-knit community of wildfire contractors, whether they knew the individuals or not, said crew leader Sonja Leverkus.
“We are one big family and across the province, when something happens to one of us, it’s happening to all of us,” said Leverkus, a fire ecologist along with being owner and crew leader for the contracting firm Northern Fire WoRx based in Fort Nelson.
“We’ve lost people that are our sisters and brothers and cousins and relations and our hearts from Northern Fire WoRx go out to the families and crews of these four people,” Leverkus said.
The deaths have also been tough to absorb for her crew knowing that they have been doing similar work in similar conditions during a trying season, Leverkus said.
She added that several of her crew members are cousins of Adam Yeadon, the 25-year-old firefighter killed near Fort Liard, N.W.T., in July and were at his funeral.
“Watching all of his crew members come into the funeral with their yellow shirts on is something that I will remember for the rest of my life,” Leverkus said. “Because that could have been any of us.”
Her company, a Type 3 contractor, fields two, five-person crews, referred to as five-packs, which requires 15 to 18 firefighters to keep them on line, Leverkus said.
“My crew and I have been fighting fires since May 3 and it’s Sept. 21,” Leverkus said. “And we haven’t had a break.”
They’re now into their fifth, two-week deployment this season, when they usually see one to three.
“We love being present to help our community, but we’re getting to the point where we just really hope it’ll snow soon,” Leverkus said.
A candlelight memorial is being planned for the four men at Chase Memorial Park on the banks of Little Shuswap Lake at sunset on Saturday.
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