After 20 years tackling environmental issues through her work with Alberta Parks, Jenny Vandersteen was inspired to create her own business in the forestry and wildlife industry.
With her team of four, the initial focus was on private wildfire prevention and education in the Pincher Creek area, which is Jenny’s home.
In two short years, Fire Wise Forest Solutions has grown to over 30 employees, with three full-time contract firefighting crews, wildfire professionals and a new Wildland Type 6 engine truck.
One of Jenny’s goals is to provide meaningful training experiences and stable employment while generating career opportunities for Indigenous people. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity or racial background, is welcome to apply for work with the company, and Jenny works in partnership with Treaty 7 nations, Indigenous employment centres and the Outland Youth Employment Program.
“National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is every day at Fire Wise,” Jenny says. “We strive to create strong, respectful relationships between the local wildfire community and Indigenous Nations of Alberta. We hope to empower them to reach their potential in the wildfire community, bringing pride, achievement, and honour back to their homes and families.”
During the peak of wildfire season, shifts can be 14 to 21 days long, with workers putting in 10 to 14 hours per day and having only a tent for amenities. Eight-person wildfire crews travel wherever they are dispatched to assist in fighting fires and eventual extinguishment, which sometimes takes several months.
“With the unprecedented wildfire season this year, our wildfire crews have successfully completed over 25 wildfire exports across the province,” Jenny says.
In the off-season, after wildfires are contained or extinguished, Fire Wise shifts into training and fire prevention. Fall and winter months are spent completing wildfire hazard assessments and risk-reduction plans for agencies, communities, ranchers and landowners.
Fire Wise follows up with vegetation management, such as pruning trees, removing diseased or hazardous trees, cleaning up debris, cutting usable wood into firewood and safely burning piles. This reduces risk to wildfires, simultaneously producing a healthier, more resilient forest.
As partners with the Canadian Prairies Prescribed Fire Exchange come springtime, Fire Wise directs its efforts toward prescribed and controlled burning to reduce the chances of large, intense wildfires.
This tactic of wildfire management promotes biodiversity, stimulates native seed germination, controls invasive species, reduces tree and shrub encroachment, increases nutrient cycling, and improves wildlife habitats and livestock stocking rates.
Fire Wise crew members JR Eagle Plume, back left, Kathy Mackinaw, Nikida Poucette and Duke Provost. In front are Jayden Rowan, Phillip Clarke, Justin Yellowhorn and Eric Boe. | Photo by Jenny Vandersteen