BCIT alum Justin Perry mitigates BC wildfires using drone technology

What started out as a passion for both aviation and forestry ended up leading BCIT alumnus Justin Perry to his dream job. As Chief Drone Pilot with Stinson Aerial Services Inc. he detected wildfires using infrared sensing technology during last summer’s intense fire season in BC.

The incredible job opportunity was sparked by a referral from BCIT instructor Jonathan Smyth, to whom Justin says he really looked up to while he was at BCIT: “Jonathan is so much more than just a professor, he’s a person with a good heart. He cares about community.”

Justin’s role as a drone pilot was the perfect opportunity to combine the skills he learned in the BCIT Forest and Natural Areas Management diploma program and his interest in drone technology.

Practical training at BCIT prepares students for the field

As the lead drone pilot and the main contact person with Transport Canada and BC Wildfires, Justin was instrumental in mapping thousands of ground fires that were extinguished by BC Wildfires last summer. The job was intense, and at one point, the team was out looking for concealed underground fires for 45 nights.

Justin says he was prepared for the work and responsibilities thanks to his BCIT education: “One beautiful thing about the BCIT Forest and Natural Areas Management program is I had at least two or three courses in regards to wildfire management.”

Justin detailed how the program taught him how to avoid fire entrapment and to stay safe on the fire lines, saying “The practical knowledge behind that is extremely useful.”

Mitigating wildfires, whether it be on the ground or by operating a drone like Justin does, requires a valid S-100 Basic Fire Suppression and Safety certification. Fortunately for Justin, and thanks to BCIT, he was already certified when he was approached for the job: “You get [the S-100] while in the program, so that’s pretty cool.”

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Words of wisdom that carry him forward

Reflecting on his time at BCIT and his Métis roots, Justin says he lives by the Ojibwe saying, waasa-inaabidaa, meaning we look in all directions. The Forestry alum explains “When you look in all directions, you realize that outside of yourself, you really are stronger together.”

Justin feels that the combination of BCIT’s model of education for a complex world and waasa-inaabidaa teaches you to develop self and connect to the outside world. “BCIT does a really good job at educating and giving people the tools to make impactful differences in their communities and for the people around them,” he explains.

Justin says he went into the Forestry program for spiritual reasons. While studying at BCIT, he explored the idea of practicing the Ojibwe culture, finding support at the Indigenous Gathering Place. Despite completing his studies at BCIT in 2018 Justin still finds support and guidance from BCIT staff, explaining that he developed relationships at BCIT that will hopefully last a lifetime, and the impacts of these connections run deep. Of his mentors, Justin says, “These people care about you more than being just a student or a number.”

Justin attributes his understanding of waasa-inaabidaa, growth, and aspiration to be a lifelong learner and teacher to Alf Dumont—Ojibwa, Indigenous Initiatives, Elder on Campus at the BCIT Burnaby campus—of whom Justin speaks warmly. He says he was the most impactful person in his life: “Alf is the most positive person I have ever met and he is definitely the most influential and inspiring person that I spent time with at BCIT. I am incredibly grateful for his mentorship while I was there and his continued guidance.”

Using drones to give back to his community

Outside of mitigating wildfires and pushing his own limits to grow, Justin finds value in giving back to youth in the Indigenous community through drone training as a way to empower them. Drone technology can be used to collect high-resolution remote sensing data of lands and waters, which Indigenous youth can utilize for land management purposes in their communities. He says that sharing his knowledge and skills is “one way for them to become involved and make a positive difference within their community.”

Since he was a kid, Justin says teaching is something he always saw himself doing. Recently, the opportunity to take his lifelong dream to the next level has presented itself. Justin is now an Assistant Instructor with the BCIT Forest and Natural Areas Management program, where he hopes to refine his industrial and cultural knowledge to better help others.

“Ultimately, we are all just one person,” he says. “When we look in all directions, together, we have more potential to change the world.”

Learn more about BCIT Indigenous Initiatives and the BCIT Forest and Natural Areas Management program.

Related Stories:

BCIT faculty takes to the skies to investigate wildfires and brings his expertise back to the classroom

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BCIT Indigenous Initiatives department and Indigenous-specific programming set students up for success


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