Burnaby recruit ready to take on all-girls firefighting camp

It’s been 10 years since veteran Burnaby firefighter Heather Wilson helped found Camp Ignite, but the annual all-girls firefighting camp run by all women firefighters still gives her goosebumps.

“We rarely get to have all these women in the same place,” she tells the NOW. “You’ve got all these women firefighters, leaders in different departments … It’s just such a cool women’s empowerment kind of fun day.”

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers thought they were going to have to cancel this year’s camp altogether, but they’ve since put together a shorter, one-day version, instead of the full four-day event.

The main goal of the camp will be the same: to inspire girls to believe they can do anything they put their minds to – including becoming firefighters.

Camp Ignite, camper Irene Chang, fire Chief Chris Bowcock, Lt. Heather Wilson
Burnaby Fire Department Lt. Heather Wilson prepares to teach Camp Ignite recruit Irene Chang about her turnout gear as fire Chief Chris Bowcock looks on. - Cornelia Naylor

“One of the things we always say, and it’s unfortunately still the case, is you can’t be what you can’t see,” Wilson says. “We still have a very low number of women in the fire service, and even less women in leadership in the fire service.”

Irene Chang, who graduated from Byrne Creek Community School this year and who’s been picked to represent Burnaby at the camp, can attest to that.

She says she had never met a female firefighter before meeting Wilson.

All the firefighters she has seen at her school giving first aid demonstrations and delivering snacks as part of the local firefighter union’s healthy snack program have been men, she says.

“People don’t talk about it, but there is something that happens there when you see that,” Wilson says. “You just automatically go ‘Oh, OK, women can’t do this.’”

Wilson and her co-founders at Camp Ignite have worked to change that perception.

For them, the camp is about raising awareness, making sure girls know firefighting could be for them.

Chang, who’s been accepted to the University of Toronto, isn’t sure yet what career she’ll pursue, but she’s interested in being a first responder, so she hopes Camp Ignite will give her a taste of what firefighting’s all about.

Does it make a difference to her that the camp is put on by women firefighters?

“It makes it more inspiring,” she says. “I know a lot of first responders are predominantly male, so having that representation just makes me know that there’s more support.”

Camp Ignite is free but costs about $500 per camper to run, so organizers rely on support from fire departments and firefighter unions.

Camp Ignite, Paul Rushton, Irene Change, Heather Wilson
IAFF Local 323 treasurer Paul Rushton and Burnaby Fire Department Lt. Heather Wilson present Byrne Creek Community School grad Irene Chang with some swag for the upcoming Camp Ignite. - Cornelia Naylor

“It’s just a great initiative bringing new people into the fire service, especially young women, exposing them to the fire service and giving them a great look at what the fire service can offer them as a career in the future,” Burnaby fire Chief Chris Bowcock says.

Bowcock, Wilson and local firefighter’s union treasurer Paul Rushton were at Fire Station 1 last week (July 30) to equip Chang with some gear, including a personalized name bar to go on the back of her turnout jacket.

Camp Ignite will take place on Aug. 9 at the Justice Institute’s Maple Ridge campus.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
Email cnaylor@burnabynow.com

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