Erika Berg stands outside VIU's Science and Tech building.

What it’s like to be the face of the 2021 fire season

January 24, 2022
Author: Rachel Stern

VIU student Erika Berg reflects on her role as a BC Wildfire Service spokesperson

Erika Berg was thrust into the spotlight last summer as one of several information officers working as provincial spokespersons for the BC Wildfire Service. She regularly appeared on television and radio shows that were broadcast throughout the province, country and around the world. She was responsible for giving updates on the fire season, which was the third-worst year on record for the total area burned.

Erika, a VIU Digital Media Studies student, wasn’t new to the role. She served on the BC Wildfire Service information team during the summers of 2020 and 2019, and worked as a planning assistant in 2018. As the 2019 and 2020 wildfire seasons had far fewer fires than 2021, she didn’t appear on mainstream media channels as prominently. 

“I had a busy season as a planning assistant and then some slower seasons within the information team that eased me into the daunting nature of being a spokesperson for BC Wildfire,” she says, adding that the 2021 season was one of heightened anxiety because of extremely hot and dry wildfire conditions combined with the ongoing concern of COVID.

Erika faced numerous challenges on the job this wildfire season. It started with the tragic Lytton fire that destroyed the town, killed two people, injured numerous others and displaced hundreds of residents. Although the fire started in the jurisdiction of Lytton and then spread to the bush, BC Wildfire Service worked closely with Lytton to manage the incident, given the size of the Lytton Fire Brigade.

“It was really intense because I had never experienced a fire so devastating and being the person that outlets were turning to was really overwhelming,” says Erika. “My phone was going off constantly. I was getting so many calls.” 

Erika recalls feeling panicked. She was working remotely at her kitchen table and was shaking involuntarily. She was going through the motions of reaching out to the regional fire centre and acquiring the appropriate messaging from her superiors, but says she still felt lost.

“I remember my partner doing something in the kitchen and that I wanted to confide in him about the situation at hand, but I could not put it into words and felt like there was no time to process,” she says. “The media and the public were desperate for information and I was the one they could get a hold of.”

Erika says she felt immense pressure to answer every request for information herself. It was a learning experience for her about reaching out for support when she needs it.

“I now understand that although my title may be information officer, it is not always appropriate that I be the deliverer of that information. Sometimes it's best that the director speak to it or the minister for that matter,” says Erika. “That realization has taken a load off my shoulders and leaves me feeling better equipped for seasons to come.” 

She also learned that being in the public eye can sometimes come with criticism. At the beginning of the fire season, Erika received an email from a member of the public that criticized how Erika was presenting herself and speaking and that she wasn’t instilling confidence in the public. 

“You’re always told that you are your own worst critic but having your insecurities voiced by someone else hit really hard. I felt a lot of shame and that I was letting down the organization,” she says, adding that her co-workers feared how this criticism would affect her mentally so made sure their superiors were notified of the harsh email. Her director and other executive staff contacted her directly and let her know that didn’t reflect their thoughts about her work. 

“They were just able to connect with me and build me back up after having been shot down.”

Erika says it was a supportive work environment. She’s made lifelong friends and is committed to returning to the position next season. She encourages students to check out the numerous seasonal opportunities available with the BC Wildfire Service.

“You can gauge if this is something that you are passionate about and pursue it. That’s what I did,” says Erika, adding that her educational background in communications made her stand out amongst the candidates. 

Erika says her VIU experience not only equipped her with skills and knowledge to succeed as an Information Officer for the BC Wildfire Service, but also allowed her to learn how to manage and cope with the stress of unfamiliar situations. When she felt anxious about starting in a new work environment, she had those previous pathways from university to draw on where she learned to push through discomfort and this allowed her to persevere and succeed. 

“University is a great place to practice being in an unfamiliar workspace. You’re able to see those parallels between persevering through a degree and rolling with the punches within the workforce,” says Erika. “It does make you more resilient in the long run, and being able to form relationships with your co-workers is like establishing relationships with your classmates and professors.”

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