Throughout my career I’ve regrettably had to cover a number of fire disasters. They’ve done much to give me a very high opinion of emergency services personnel, especially our community firefighters.
In 1997 I was working as a reporter for The Macleod Gazette (yes, that’s how you spell Macleod, despite the fact the provincial government has it spelled three different ways on local highway signage). If you’re familiar with the area, you know the Pincher Creek-Fort Macleod-Lethbridge area is know for high winds. At this particular time, the first week of December, we had a Chinook with roughly 13 degree warmth, plus howling 100 km/hr winds that dried the countryside into kindling.
Then we had someone living in the Pincher Creek area (in the middle of these dry, 100 km/hr winds) decide on a Sunday afternoon it was great weather to burn leaves in an unattended barrel. Not surprisingly, the wind pushed over the barrel, and fire spread…well, like wildfire. The winds blew the fire east toward Fort Macleod and especially the Town of Granum. A number of people were afraid the winds and roaring fire would jump Hwy. #2 and destroy Granum. Luckily, that didn’t happen.
As the grass fire howled and roared that Sunday night, firefighters not just from Fort Macleod and Granum, but from across southern Alberta battled the flames. There was one incident that the fire chief told me about later, where a vehicle with local firefighters was moving near the front when the winds shifted and the blaze crashed over the vehicle almost like a tidal wave. The vehicle obviously lost power as fire burned all available air, and the firefighters huddled in the vehicle, wondering what was going to happen. Luckily, the flames were moving so quickly in the wind they seared the vehicle and left, almost like a living creature. The firefighters were okay. Those firefighters were volunteers and I couldn’t help but admire them for the fact they chose to risk their lives to protect the rest of us.
Fast forward a few years and I was working as editor at the Mountaineer newspaper in Rocky Mountain House. One cold January night about midnight, I was safely sleeping in bed when I got a call from a co-worker whose husband was on the fire department. There was a major structure fire in the industrial park and all nearby departments were heading out. So I went too.
On the way there I had a Red Deer radio station playing, and the deejay said the temperature was about -40 degrees, with a minus 10 degree wind-chill; it was about minus 50 degrees out! When I got to the fire, the sight that greeted me was surreal: blazing bright flames destroying a large commercial building, while the intense cold was freezing water from fire hoses as it passed through the air. The firefighters must have been wearing I don’t know how many pounds of frozen water on their uniforms, and likely a lot more, plus the physical demands of working in that kind of cold. I couldn’t believe anyone would volunteer to do that job, but many people do.
After becoming editor of The Pipestone Flyer, I had a chat with a Millet retired fire chief who recounted the day the old hotel burned down. That was before my time, but what I found most interesting was the skill involved in fighting that fire. The building itself was beyond help, but the firefighters managed to keep the fire from spreading to anything, despite the fact at least one other building was extremely close by.
Help from the local fire department isn’t something most people think about…until they need it. Our firefighters are skilled, well-trained people who risk their lives to protect their neighbours and their neighbour’s property.
It’s Fire Prevention Week, so if you know a firefighter, or just bump into one, thank him or her for the great service they offer our communities.
They deserve it.
Stu Salkeld is the editor of The Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.