Whenever I think back to this summer, it will be accompanied by the distinct “chopping” of helicopters. Ascent Helicopters has a base just off Burma Road, so it’s hard to miss a take off or landing and is something I’ve often enjoyed hearing, as one of our good friends Dave Hawrys is a pilot and my daughters both love to see him in action. But with the BC Wildfire status this year, these sounds brought with them some anxiety. Both for the state of emergency and also for the well-being of Dave and many, many others working tirelessly and putting their own lives in danger in an effort to keep our communities, our homes, and our people safe.
I ran into Dave earlier this summer. He had just landed from a day of fire fighting and came to meet some friends for a quick beer before he was back at it at daybreak. It was early times in the BC Wildfire scene, so while he was definitely concerned he was also extremely excited at the work and challenge it offered. Fast forward a few months, and he’s exhausted. He’s basically working to the maximum of allowable hours, which means he’s rarely home with his wife and seven-year old. And he might only see his buddies from the skies, flying over to say “Hi!” while they cool down at their favourite spot on the river. (Seriously, this happened.)
But, this is what Dave signed up for.
Originally from Calgary, Dave grew up skiing the Bow Valley but after graduation he and a friend decided to move away to become ski bums. “Trent (Scarlett) showed up to my house and was, like, where are we going? I said Lake Louise. He said Fernie,” Dave tells me over a beer. “We checked out where it snowed more, and off we went to Fernie. It was 1997… twenty years ago!”
His first job was at the ski hill as a lifty, where he continued to work for ten years eventually getting on as ski patrol. While he enjoyed the work, he knew it wasn’t something he could do forever. He has been extremely intrigued by flying from an early age but always felt like it was out of reach. After discussing it with his wife, Lenka they decided it was something he had to do. Dave attended school full time just outside of Calgary in Springbank. “But that was only six months. Then you have to get your first job, and put your hours in,” Dave adds. For him, that job was in Northern Alberta, where for four years he worked a month to 42-day shifts at a time with a week off in between. “Which was basically five days, as you had a travel day on either end,” he informs me.
During this time, Dave and Lenka had a son, Jack. Dave knew Gregg Goodison, a helicopter pilot based in Fernie. “I started helping Gregg out a bit on the ground. Just on my days off, on my own time, hoping that I could get a job here,” Dave says. And then it worked. Gregg had started Ascent Helicopters, which is based in Parksville, BC with a satellite base in Fernie. The Fernie team is made up of Gregg, Dave and a pilot engineer.
Ascent specializes in power line construction and maintenance, but their scope in Fernie ranges from Search and Rescue to Heli Tours to fighting fires… “If there is a season,” he adds. And this year there definitely has been. How do they manage? “You still have to fit everything else in, and fight the fires. You work everyday. I was forced to take five days off to reset – as per the law. And then you work until you run out of hours.” Even when they’re not flying (they can’t fly at night) they are fielding calls. This summer, Fernie became a hub for aircrafts for a while because of its location. “Technically, we are surrounded by fires,” Dave tells me. “Waterton, Wigwam, Newgate, Quinn/Brulee Creek. It’s no surprise the town burnt down over 100 years ago! All it takes is a grass fire in the perfect spot that nobody can get to. Luckily, we have the resources.”
Dave tells me that Ascent is also specialized in Class D Rescue, so they can actually insert fire fighters into locations they normally couldn’t reach. “It’s pretty surreal,” he says. “These fire fighters are repelling into the fire, and you’re bucketing around houses and people’s livelihoods. You can’t help but feel for what people are going through.
“It’s easy to get wound up in the stress and smoke and the fire and heat… but you’re also just trained to do your job. So you do it to the best of your ability. ‘Yes, I can do this. No, I will not do that…’ You check yourself and make good decisions. The most intense part of it all isn’t the day to day… it’s everything in combination.”
Dave admits that the hours can get old, and that it’s tough on his family. But, both he and Lenka were aware of the lifestyle they were getting into and are grateful that he now mainly works out of Fernie.
“There’s no delusion. It’s a way of life. Jack now knows that, and is getting more used to it,” he says. But you can see that it’s still difficult for them. “Work is so last minute, it’s hard to make plans… we couldn’t even plan to have this interview!” and we laugh. Because it’s 11pm, and we’re talking in a tatami room at Yamagoya. Dave is also so grateful for Lenka. “She gave me the chance to put work first for the first few years, to ensure it happened. And that’s a huge sacrifice.”
At the end of the day, even a tough day fighting fires Dave is doing what he loves, where he loves, with whom he loves. “I could easily see myself retiring working for this company. I love my job. I love my family. I can’t picture myself doing anything else, anywhere else. I am hooked.”
Thank you, Dave. We are so very grateful for you and the many individuals who have worked to fight fires in BC this summer.
1. When did you first arrive in Fernie and what brought you here? 1997, skiing powder brought me here.
2. Where did you first live in town? The apartments behind the A&W. Trent and I shared a one bedroom apartment. Two beds, it was insane.
3. What was your first impression? Red. Redneck. When we first moved here, there was an article in Powder magazine to take the stickers off your truck and not to come to town as a ski bum, as you might get beat up. The first beer I had in town was at the Motor Inn… I thought, we’re in Nashville. Cowboyland.
4. What keeps you here? That’s a good question. Because, you can’t say work… or family… I think what keeps me here is community. There’s nothing like it. People move away, and a lot of them try to come back. Nowhere 15-20 years ago did this many people move to one spot and call it home. A lot of those people never left. They made it work, they figured out a way to live in a really expensive tourist town.
5. Do you have a favourite Fernie memory? So many that I can’t talk about… or name names… I think the people. Some of my best friends on the planet are the people that I met here, and the memory of how I met each of them is up there. A place and a time and a certain thing we were doing. A lot of it was skiing.
6. What is your favourite time of the year in Fernie and why? I hate to say summer. It’s brilliant. Beautiful, warm. I love it, I’d be an idiot to not say the pow days are the best thing ever, but I do like summer the most. Nothing beats it. Biking, BBQs, friends, and more
7. Where do you see Fernie in 5 to 10 years? Oh man, that’s a loaded question. I honestly hope to see it no bigger than it is. I love where it is now. I hope I don’t see it super commercialized and crazy, but that being said growth is good and it’s healthy. But with baby steps.
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals? Coffee… religiously. Weather check/snow check, right when my eyes open. Even before coffee. And I’m usually out the door shortly after that… to work, or ski.
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you. People read me like an open book! I got nothing to hide.
10. Quote to live by: Expectation is the route of all heartache.