April 13, 2013, Peace River, Alta. – It’s Day 4 of the Northwest Fire Conference here in Peace River, Alta. These hardy northern types are still going strong and those of us who came from the east have finally adjusted to Mountain Daylight Time, just in time to go back to Ontario tomorrow – pending the 20 centimetres of snow that are coming today to parts of Alberta . . .
By Laura King
April 13, 2013, Peace River, Alta. – It’s Day 4 of the
Northwest Fire Conference here in Peace River, Alta. These hardy northern types
are still going strong and those of us who came from the east have finally
adjusted to Mountain Daylight Time, just in time to go back to Ontario tomorrow
– pending the 20 centimetres of snow that are coming today to parts of Alberta .
I should be getting commission – or something – from the
good folks at Twitter.
keynote presentation yesterday morning I
encouraged the 120 conference delegates to get on Twitter. It is, I told them,
an efficient and effective tool for managing and improving the flow of
information that helps them operate efficient and effective fire departments.
Several firefighters and officers asked me afterwards how to
start a Twitter account and how to figure out which people, agencies and
organizations to follow. So, Twitter training is on tap today in various
corners of the conference site. #needmoretime #backnextyear?
#we’renotinHighLevel (sorry, inside joke!)
So far today I’ve had breakfast with Drager product
specialist Joe Drouin to talk about the Live fire Training Tour (LiFTT) that
preceded this conference, done a quick check on a presentation by Edmonton-based
media consultant Grant Ainsley during which I caught Peace River Deputy Chief
Tim Harris do a great job in a mock on-camera interview – and circled the trade
show floor to grab some more photos and video clips (and have my Globe fire
boots properly laced – thank you!)
Next up? A trip up to the Peace River Fire Department’s Westhill
Training Site to take photos and video of the two-day session on thermal
imaging cameras, a run to Day 2 of Randy Schmitz’s auto-ex training session, a
lesson on wildland fires with Drager lead instructor Rich Graeber, a thank-you
dinner with the organizing fire chiefs, and, perhaps, a bit of networking.
Over the course of this week I’ve talked to some
firefighters who were in Slave Lake in May 2011 to help fight the wildfire. The
Peace River Fire Department was the first department called in to help. It was
a Sunday afternoon, most people were home, and the response was overwhelming.
These guys are experienced in the bush and spent days in Slave Lake living out
of the fire trucks.
Last night, I had the privilege of viewing a book of photos put
together by Peace River Fire Chief Lance Bushie to thank his crews for helping
their neighbours. Neighbours, in northern Alberta, are different from
neighbours back home in southwestern Ontario: Slave Lake is about 250 kilometres
southeast of Peace River.
“May 15, 2011, our neighbours were devastated by wildfire,”
Bushie wrote on the opening page. “A call for help went out to sister
departments to help in any capacity possible. Peace River, the County of
Northern Lights, Manning, and High Level fire departments, among others, answered
that call. The following pages show a glimpse of the devastation and mitigation
efforts. Let the following also serve as a token of our immense gratitude for
working alongside us.”
After getting to know Slave Lake Fire Chief Jamie Coutts at
conferences, and hearing his presentation on the fire three different times –
each one more emotional than the other – the book struck me as an intimate and
overwhelmingly poignant memoir of the unimaginable, of something that, as one
firefighter said last night, “has changed us.”
The pictures in the book (I’ll post some pix next week when
I have a stronger wireless connection) are, for the most part, ones that
weren’t seen in newspapers or on TV – they are much more personal shots of what
these firefighters experienced: fingers of melted aluminum on the ground from a
vaporized travel trailer, an lone green shoot of new growth in the blackened
bush less than a week after fire had burned through that area, smiles of
camaraderie and good team work at the end of 20-hour days. (Calgary
firefighters doing pushups at the Slave Lake fire hall to impress certain members
of the opposite gender . . . but we won’t go there.)
One Peace River firefighter described last night standing in
basements of homes that had been devastated, spraying water on smouldering
contents – furniture, kids’ toys, sports equipment – and feeling as if she were
invading people’s privacy. Empty swimming
pools – the water had simply boiled over – were eerie and everywhere, she said.
There is still snow on the ground in parts of Alberta today
– and more coming this afternoon – but grass fires are already burning in
parts of the country and Alberta’s fickle winds can cause things to change in
Back at the conference, the room is full for Rich Graeber’s
presentation on key elements of wildfire initial attack. There are plenty of
experienced wildland firefighters in in the room who know they will be back in
the bush within weeks, and who know there will
be another Slave Lake.
Out here, they’re preparing for that through this conference
and myriad meetings and training that are part of the development of a Type 3
all-hazards incident management team to respond to Slave Lake-type events.
Graeber has talked this week about the system of response
teams in his home state of Colorado. As Canada struggles to get $1.3 million in
federal funding for HUSAR teams and develop provincial or regional response
teams, first-response leaders in northwestern Alberta are taking matters into
their own hands (see Thursday's blog).
Graeber’s presentation is starting now. “We’re going to
drill right back on incident management,” he said in his introduction. “This
wildland environment has a science, it is predictable, it is a chemical chain
reaction, it just happens to not be in a house . . . ”
Graeber is talking as we speak about climate change – which we
know was a factor in Slave Lake. “The fire activity we have seen in the past is
not likely what we will see in the future,” he says.
Increasing community growth within the wildlands is contributing
to conditions for catastrophic fires, he says. “We’ve got people building where
they never built before and there’s an expectation of fire protection.”
“We’ve got to get our game on here.”
Graeber and the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs have a lot of