Winner: Matthew Wollman
Nominated by: Candice Doherty
Congratulations to Matt Wollman, a Canadian wildfire fighter from Dauphin, MB and our second First Responder of the Year for 2020! Matt was nominated by his older sister, Candice Doherty, for his big heart and willingness to put his life on the line for others no matter the situation.
At 22 years old, Matt is one of the youngest Canadian wildfire fighters to be deployed to Australia to assist with the widespread wildfires that have had a devastating effect there. According to Candice, he has an incredible heart for people and loves serving ALL communities – not just his own – in any way he can.
“Matt is my youngest brother and comes from a family of 6 children,” says his older sister Candice. “We couldn’t be prouder of the fact that he is one of the brave ones in Australia. Truly a very down to earth young man with an extraordinary calling!”
The Shield Journal caught up with Matt from his temporary home in Moss Vale, New South Wales, where he is currently working with the Forestry Corporation of NSW Australia.
“The firefighting has been very different,” he admits. “It’s been a learning curve with many new variables to account for that aren’t a hazard back home.”
Matt says that in Australia, there are many steep gullies and valleys that cause the fire to move faster running uphill. This makes access to the fire more hazardous, which means that being aware and knowing your escape routes and safety zones are that much more important. The tree canopy is also much higher in Australia, which makes falling trees and limbs more of a hazard.
“The majority of the trees are gum trees, which are known for dropping limbs out of nowhere,” he says. “I’ve been around fire for several years now and I know what to expect, but that being said, the size and intensity of the fires does scare me a little at times.”
One of the most memorable moments so far, according to Matt, was a long and grueling night on Jan. 4 when the Morton fire burned through half of Wingello state forest and into the village of Wingello. Matt and his crew had already been working for 12 hours when they were called out of the state forest to protect the village. They spent 14 hours battling the blaze – it was Matt’s first encounter with a fire of that size since arriving in Australia, and his very first time fighting fire at night.
“The night was a blur as we moved from home to home trying to contain spot fires,” he explains. “At the end of the night, we were all so exhausted.”
Back home in Dauphin, MB, Matt works for a Canadian Helitac crew out of Snow Lake fighting fires during their own forest fire season. They are transported by helicopter to battle some of Manitoba’s most intense wildfires, curbing disaster before it becomes unmanageable. When he’s not battling fires with his crew, Matt serves his community by reaching out to the Dauphin youth organizing sports and other activities.
“My community is so important to me,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have the support group around me that I do. When I’m home, I’m involved with as many of the local sports teams as I can. I love meeting people through that and those friendships are always there when I return home.”
Matt arrived in Australia at the end of November and says he will be sticking around until the end of May when the fire season ends.
“There have been moments where I’ve stood still for a few minutes and just thought, oh wow, this is absolutely crazy,” Matt says. “It’s been challenging at times, but I am still enjoying the work and the time spent with my coworkers on the fire ground.”
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Photo supplied by Matthew Wollman (via Instagram)