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Vermont forester returns from fighting wildfires in 'burnt over' rural Quebec

A firefighter walks across a burned out landscape.
Chloe Sardonis
Firefighters are working on dozens of wildfires across Quebec.

For the past few months, Canada has been dealing with some of the worst wildfires its ever seen.

More than 20 million acres have burned so far — a record for the country. And while the boreal forests of Quebec are adapted to fire, climate change is making forest fires everywhere more frequent and intense.

Firefighters from all over the world, including Vermont, have come to help fight these fires.

To get an inside look at how the firefighting in Quebec is progressing, Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki caught up with Chloe Sardonis, a protection forester with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. She recently returned from fire detail in the province. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 A woman smiles for the camera surrounded by trees and brush.
Sardonis, Chloe
Chloe Sardonis

Jenn Jarecki: First, can you break down for us where you were in Quebec, what you were doing and how long you were there?

Chloe Sardonis: Yeah, so fire details are typically two weeks long. So we got into trucks; [my particular crew] was coming from New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. There are people from all over, but we kind of met up and crossed the border, and we went to Maniwaki, Quebec. This is the headquarters for [la Société de protection des forêts contre le feu], which is the provincial firefighting organization for [that region we were working in] Quebec. We stopped there and got our initial briefing from them. Then we also had our helicopter training there. Then we drove north another couple hours the next day, and essentially got driven straight to the outfitter that we stayed at. Then we were able to drive from the outfitter right to the fire that we were assigned to.

Chloe Sardonis

How are things in Quebec? Can you set the scene for us? You know, what did it look like and smell like — even sound like — while you were there?

It depends on where you are. Because it's a vast countryside. So there's a lot of terrain — beautiful, beautiful boreal forests, black spruce bogs and gorgeous lakes and bodies of water everywhere. Then the fire is large areas that are just totally burnt over black . All the spruce trees that had burnt had orange needles or no needles. Then where it was actually flaming is where you start to get that thick smoke.

The first day we drove in, the experience was essentially driving on a very dusty dirt road because it's been extremely dry. They are in extreme fire danger. We're driving in a convoy of four trucks, and if you were not the first truck, you essentially couldn't see anything at all. It's just a dust cloud. Then all of a sudden, you start seeing just black ground and start smelling that smoke. Then the next thing you know, we're driving past slash piles that are engulfed in flames. You could feel the heat through the glass window. We're like, "Okay, we're here. We're at the fire. "

Based on what you saw while you were up there, Chloe, are firefighters making progress on the wildfires? I'm curious, how would you characterize the current state of affairs up there by the time you left?

 A group of firefighters stand with a helicopter in the background.
Chloe Sardonis

Yeah, I would say progress. But it did feel like there was a long ways to go. I mean, given the scale of how much is burning right now and how challenging it is to put out a lot of the fire. They have almost like a peat duff layer, in some of these spruce, swamp-like conditions. Once it's burning in that duff layer, it's really challenging to put out. You get these conditions and it can just smolder and smolder, kind of burning roots and burning duff. Then when the relative humidity drops and the temperature goes up, and it gets a little flame — it can suddenly start torching trees and then spread the fire. It's really challenging to fully extinguish a fire. In our case, we were brought to a fire that was 575 acres. There hadn't been anybody on it yet. And we essentially extinguished that fire. So in that regard, I could say progress was made. But it's a drop in the bucket compared to everything that's currently burning.

In addition to some of the reasons you just gave, what have been some of the other challenges to slowing down or even stopping the fires?

Well, definitely the weather has not been in their favor. It's been a serious drought, and it hasn't been helped at all [without] rain. On top of that, the last week we were there, it was in the high 80s, high 90s every day. That's the kind of thing where in the morning, you might show up and it's relatively quiet on the fire. And then by afternoon things are gonna get a little more wild, as those relative humidities go down and the temperature goes up.

Chloe Sardonis

How was the firefighting capacity? While you were while you were there in Quebec? Did it feel like there were enough people on the ground?

I mean, in our case, we were a 14-person crew, all from the Northeast, and we were the only ones on any of the fires that we worked. We primarily worked on one fire and successfully moved it from active to controlled, I think to extinguished. They're hesitant to ever put that word out there until they know for sure. I would say in our case, when we got moved to the bigger fire, we definitely did not have the capacity that would be required to put out a fire that size, which is why they pulled us off of it. I think it's different probably all over the province. I know in other areas, they have fires that are hundreds of thousands of acres. So obviously they have a lot of their resources on the really big fires. I think that would probably have been a different scene where you have a bunch of crews from all over the world as well as from all over Canada.

From what you saw Chloe, what kind of outlook do you expect for the fires for the rest of the summer and fall?

I think they're going to be dealing with these fires right through until they get snow. Honestly, I think they they have a lot of people that are continuing to show up for the compact, the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Compact, which got our local crews together. They're continuing to send people from all over the world. I think they'll continue to do what they're doing and make that progress moving forward. But I think unless they have a real turn of weather, they'll probably will be dealing with fires until the snow flies.

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