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A Brave Lithuanian Firefighter

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Ramūnė Jonaitis

Chatelaine Magazine published an article by Emily Landau on May 17 of this year about firefighter Julie Stankevicius “Julie Stankevicius Is Leading The Battle Against Wildfires”. We are interested of course because we like to mention any Lithuanians who are featured in the Canadian press.

Emily Landau writes that last summer was the worst on record for forest fires (6,800) in Canada. Extreme weather and climate change were to blame, burning 2.2 million hectares of Canadian wilderness. “In B.C., it was the worst season on record, with 5,000 people displaced from their homes.” An excess of fuel (dead trees from droughts), more frequent lightning strikes and a spike in dry, windy weather were major factors.

Emily writes: “Julie Stankevicius, a fire operations technician with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Sudbury, Ont., is a hero straight out of Backdraft. She started fighting fires on a summer contract in 2005. … Since then, she has snuffed out fires across the country, working for the Ministry of Environment in Saskatchewan, the B.C. Wildfire Service and the Jasper FireSmart crew. By the record-breaking summer of 2018, she was in her current role with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, where she manages several teams of dozens of firefighters.

In July, Stankevicius was stationed in Sudbury as an incident commander: She flew helicopters over the fire to coordinate response efforts, deployed crews and provided food and equipment to firefighters on the ground. Later that month, she was sent to Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park in northeastern Ontario, where she led a team using bulldozers, skidders and other heavy machinery to strategically build a line of flames to direct the rampaging wildfire. At the end of August, Stankevicius was back in B.C., fighting the Shovel Lake fire, which annihilated almost 100,000 hectares of forest. She worked alongside about 80 people from across the continent, including teams from Quebec and Mexico. By the first week of September, the fire was contained.

In her 15 years of fighting fires, she says last summer’s were among the worst, yet she knows the job is just going to get harder.”

The article in Chatelaine inspired me to investigate further. I did get Julie’s email and asked her a few questions about her background. Happily, she wrote back, and this is what I discovered.

Julie was born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, went to school there at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School. She went to Lithuanian School until I was in grade 5 at St. Joseph’s in Hamilton. I also belonged to “Kovas” the Hamilton Lithuanian basketball team. My parents had many Lithuanian friends as well whom we interacted with regularly.

Her mother Vida Čegys was born in Gudžiūnai, near Kedainiai, worked as a high school librarian and taught French and History. Her father, Joseph (Juozas) Stankevičius was born in Mariampolė and was a sales man and CEO of a large international router table manufacturer (AXYZ Automation).

Julie has one older brother who was born in 1978 in Hamilton, also Joseph Stankevičius, an engineer, lives in Edmonton, AB, has 3 children. Her mother has a brother and sister
Jonas Čegys (married Margret Newfeld, has two sons Paul and Jonas), and a sister, Julia Vysnauskas (married Tony Vysnauskas, has three sons Gediminas, Antanas, Darius and one daughter Julia). Father’s sister is Irene Zubas (married Peter Zubas), two sons Ed and  Benny, and daughter Loretta.

Asked what prompted her to go into firefighting as a career, she said: “When I got out of high school, I wasn’t certain what I wanted to pursue professionally. I was looking for honest, meaningful work to give me some time to decide and I came across the basic wildland firefighting course (SP100). I took the 10-day course and headed out west to BC where I started my career. I managed to hustle up winter work on burning crews and continued with my fire career in the summer.

I honestly just stumbled into the job. Once I started working in the field of wildland fire I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to pursue a career within the industry. It’s important work with on the job training. I have traveled to 9 provinces and 2 territories and have had the opportunity to work with the best people in the industry in remote communities all over the country. As I continue within my career, the science of forest fires and complexities of response operations is becoming more challenging and rewarding. The workplace is full of supportive, team oriented, hard working folks. There is plenty of opportunity for development and growth within the organization and the organization has many facets to explore.

I spent one year on a type 2 crew as a crew member in BC (2003) , 6 years with Parks Canada as a crew member/FireSmart supervisor (2004-2010), 1 year with Saskatchewan in the detection program (2011),  3 years with the BC Wildfire service as a crew member and crew leader (2012-2015) , and then Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry  as a crew leader/technician where I worked out of the Sudbury Fire Management Headquarters.

Currently I am a Level 3 Incident Commander, with my Aerial Ignition Technician Certification which allows me to travel all over the country as a Single Resource to major priority wildfires and emergencies in a response/operations capacity and on an ignition team as well. Earlier on this season we were helping out with the floods in North Eastern Ontario and now we are being deployed to Alberta to help with the fires. It’s a very dynamic and exciting work environment which has led me down a path full of adventure and opportunity.

We thank Julie for taking the time to write to us, and together with all our readers wish her safe travels and all the best in her career.

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