Aaron Williams is a seasoned firefighter who has fought wildfires across B.C. While visiting family here on Haida Gwaii, Williams will read from his memoir Chasing Smoke at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Port Clements Public Library. (Submitted)

Chasing Smoke gives on-the-ground look at fighting B.C. wildfires

Firefighter Aaron Williams talks about his wildfire memoir tonight at the Port Clements Library

Aaron Williams has a special place in his heart for hose trail.

Using chainsaws, firefighters quickly cut the narrow, hiking-width trails along the edge of a wildfire — usually in places where it’s just a smouldering ground fire, not a great big blaze with overhead flames.

Next, they run several hoses along the trail: thick mainlines and thin, garden-type hoses that hook into “water thief” connections so a crew can split up and soak several kilometres of ground all at once.

“This is the best, cheapest way to fight fire — a person stringing hose through the bush,” writes Williams in his newly published book, Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir.

Harbour Publishing

But that doesn’t make it easy.

Writing about a wildfire near Kelowna, Williams recalls what it’s like to walk the trails lugging several rolls of hose on his shoulders and a Pulaski — a special hand tool that is half axe, half digger.

“Some can carry six; others can carry as many as 12,” he writes. “At about 45 kilograms total, eight is good enough.”

“I lift the Pulaski over my head and rest it across my shoulders. The hose couplings sink into my skin, grinding muscle into bone. I sweat worse on this second trip. With each step my legs quiver.”

Chasing Smoke is Williams’ first non-fiction book, based mainly on a journal he kept through B.C.’s 2014 fire season.

His next book may well be about Haida Gwaii.

Although he recently moved with his girlfriend in Halifax, Williams has family in Port Clements and long connections to the islands — his maternal grandfather was a principal in Sandspit in the 1950s, and his father’s family logged the southern part of Moresby Island in the 1970s and 1980s.

For now, Williams is visiting family and reading from Chasing Smoke at the Port Clements Library.

While reading other recent wildfire memoirs set in Fort McMurray and the U.S., Williams said he was struck by all the “super-intense action sequences” — situations where lives were on the line.

“You look at pictures on the news and think, ‘Whoa, that looks dangerous.’ There’s huge walls of flame, and helicopters bucketing,’ he said.

But Williams didn’t have tales like that, not even after a rare nine seasons of firefighting.

Not a single B.C. firefighter has died since the province started to organize crews in the 1980s, Williams pointed out (and before provincial crews, he found, it wasn’t too uncommon to gather one from a local bar).

The reality is that for every life-or-death moment, there are hours of grind.

So as much as he wanted to write about the reality of firefighting, Williams said he wanted to give a sense of the people fighting them.

In a typical May to August season, B.C. firefighters can make $20,000 to $40,000. The money and timing make it a big draw for college and university students.

“People joke that it’s the most educated blue-collar work in the country,” Williams said. That can sometimes cause trouble, since it’s often the students’ first real job.

Few stick with it as long as Williams has.

In busy seasons, firefighters work 14 straight days with three days off, and those days off usually involve long drives home. A few rounds of that, and most people are totally exhausted.

Williams surprised himself by going back this year, but the money was enticing, and after a years-long break, he said it felt good returning to work he knows well.

So while Haida Gwaiians were getting soaked by one of the wettest summers in recent memory, Williams was fighting wildfires in the dry, wind-whipped interior during what turned out to be the worst season in B.C. history.

“It did feel different this summer,” he said, noting how lightning storms sparked the fires right along the Highway 97 corridor, where so many people live.

“You’d be working in an area and somebody’s burned house is right there,” he said. “The job certainly takes on a different tone and meaning.”

Williams will read from Chasing Smoke at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 6 in the Port Clements Public Library, and copies will be available for sale. The event is co-organized by the Vancouver Island Regional Library and Literacy Haida Gwaii.

Port Clements

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