For 21 years the Kamloops Bighorns Unit Crew has fought forest fires from the B.C. Interior into Eastern Canada and the United States.
At the time of inception, the Bighorns were strictly a First Nations firefighting team, only opening its ranks to non-aboriginals six or seven years ago.
Crew supervisor Raymond Dick and firefighter Mike Narcisse have been Bighorns since day one. They've lived through changes in safety practices and training methods, watched forests burn and dodged death.
Dick has nearly been killed three times by falling trees.
"That's why we have tree assessing now, which opens your eyes to looking at trees differently and being more aware of your surroundings," he said, citing one of the many changes in forest fire fighting since 1992.
"It's a dangerous job."
The Bighorns work out of the Kamloops Fire Centre, one of the busiest fire zones in the province. A sustained action crew of 20 firefighters, the Bighorns are deployed into four-person crews to work a blaze, often for weeks at a time.
The crew recently completed a 14-day stint on the Spatsum Creek fire near Ashcroft.
When it was formed, the Bighorns joined the ranks of two or three First Nation firefighting units in the province, said Narcisse. The Bighorns role, aside from fighting fires, was to provide employment for aboriginals.
Dick was one of five members of the Ashcroft Indian Band who answered an ad in his band office. He said a fire on Mount Paul was enough to prompt the Tk'emlups Indian Band chief and council to explore the possibility of First Nations fighting fires.
"There were (forestry) crews actioning it and they were like 'Hey, our people can do this too'," said Dick.
Thirty-seven aboriginals arrived at the old residential school for the first day of training, he said. Only 20 found work.
Those 20 underwent seven days of training. At the time, Dick went home each night. Today's firefighters endure a weeklong firefighting boot camp where recruits are on site 24/7.
He said the physical test was different then. A recruit would climb up and down a single, large step for five minutes and have his pulse checked.
"Basically everyone would pass," said Dick.
The modern fitness test consists of sit-ups, pull-ups, running and other endurance and strength tests. Fire information officer Michaela Swan said the exam takes place prior to boot camp, not after the recruits have been hired.
Dick, Narcisse and 14-year Bighorns veteran Jarvis Manuel have seen a lot in their time. Fires of note include the 2003 wildfires in the North Thompson. There's also the Slave Lake fire of 2011 and, closer to home, the Martin Mountain blaze near Pritchard in 2009.
Firefighting techniques differ depending on where they're fought, said Manuel. In B.C., crews dig hand guards to stop a fire in its tracks.
Not so in Ontario, he said. There, forest fires are fought with hoses and water.
"They flood it they've got so much water," said Manuel. "They don't use hand tools to dig it up or anything."
Safety is more of a priority now than in 1992. Dick said firefighters take courses that teach him or her how to assess the landscape around them.
An intense fire will weaken tree roots or burn out the top, he said. All it takes is a strong wind and a tree comes down. A two-day course reveals the warning signs to look for.
"The way things are done now, we're a lot more safety conscious," Dick said.
When Manuel started fighting fires he was issued a fire shelter. The six-feet tall, two-feet wide "tin foil" cover was worn if crews were caught in a fire's path.
"It was basically turning you into a baked potato," he said. "Now the mindset is don't put yourself in a position where you'll need it."
Although proud to serve with everyone on the Bighorns crew, Dick would like to see more First Nations fighting fires. Narcisse and Manuel agree, but say the interest isn't there.
"The younger generations just doesn't have the interest," said Manuel. "It's a great job. I don't know why anyone would not want to do it."
The solution? Dick said First Nation communities must be made aware of the opportunity. That comes through education and recruitment.
What's next for the Bighorns? This fire season got off to an exciting start, but heavy rains and cool temperatures put an end to that.
Crews train during the downtime and clear deadfall and other fire fuels from areas of concern, said firefighter Kevin Eastwood. But the real thrill comes from fighting fires.
Fortunately, as even new recruit Kit Nilsson can attest, it's just a matter of time before the weather warms up, the grass and trees dry out, and a fire starts.
"It's fun and exciting," said Nilsson.