Canadian Firefighter Magazine

On scene – blog

By Jamie Coutts   

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Jan. 4, 2017, Slave Lake, Alta. -  Run of the mill calls, or are they?

It was 10 p.m. on a cold Wednesday night in November and the tones went off for a vehicle fire in the southwest part of town. Just another vehicle fire, I thought. Upon arrival our Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service duty officer (someone covers the area 24/7 with a command vehicle that goes out before crews) saw a small amount of smoke coming from the front of a vehicle that was crashed into the front of a mobile home. The calls to the hall were hurried and crews could tell that the situation was more than a typical vehicle fire. With temperatures at -23 C and the wind 30 km/h out of the northwest, this was destined to be a cold fight.

On arrival, firefighters hurried to their positions and started the attack on the SUV fire that by now (seven minutes into call) was starting to spread into the corner of the mobile home it was smashed into. With the SUV and the trailer on fire, a second hose was deployed and more resources were called to the scene. This particular mobile home was located in a tight cul-de-sac and parking was at a premium – the structure was flanked on one side by a house and on the other by an open lot (which firefighters had been at the previous month for a struck gas line). The firefighters started dousing the flames in the vehicle, while the second crew set up for the mobile-home fire. Just as things were getting really exciting, a most peculiar thing happened . . . the SUV started rolling down the driveway and out into the road, slowly at first and then picking up speed as it left the driveway and went out into the cul-de-sac. This flaming vehicle headed past firefighters with flames dancing, and ended up just 10 feet from the side of our brand new, $500,000 custom-cab truck!

Firefighters standing by tried to slow the roll, and firefighters moved hose lines and attacked the fire with new vigour as the very truck that brought them was threatened. At the same time, the mobile-home fire had reached the soffits (plastic no less) and moved into the attic space. On this newer style mobile home, the new, vaulted ceiling left small, cut up, awkward attic spaces and the fire was hard to follow.
The weather made every attempt to stop us, freezing up masks, turning water to ice to get the vehicle moving backwards, freezing up nozzles and firefighters alike. Command ordered an aggressive interior attack and vented the attic space and pulled drywall ahead of the fire. Firefighters held the fire at the halfway mark despite the overwhelming weather odds, and the close call out front. Insulation froze to everything, leaving firefighters looking like half-plucked chickens. Masks were frozen, and were later removed while overhaul continued (there was great air movement and all smoke and off gassing was removed by natural ventilation). Firefighters tried seeing through iced and fogged visors and safety glasses but, in the end, two were treated for debris in their eyes. Not a great outcome and as many judge, others who know and have been there understand.

As the fires were brought under control, the investigation started and as weird as this call was, the reason it started followed right along. A kid in the house (14 years old) with a learner’s driving license, had decided that a trip to the store (three blocks away) had to be by SUV on this cold night. After warming the SUV, she decided to back out of the driveway – while the SUV was in drive. After slamming into the mobile home, she ran inside and alerted the other occupants. As the others were leaving, the SUV had already caught fire. 

Hard decision after hard decision combined with freezing temperatures, and wind that blew right through us, made this a fire for the record books. Seventeen firefighters on four trucks spent three hours gaining an upper hand on these fires. Many rotating shifts and a crafty crew familiar with cold-weather events got us to this positive outcome. It didn’t hurt that we had spare gloves, toques, and Tim Hortons to keep us warm.

To me the lesson this night was be prepared – have dry clothes, bad-weather SOGS, and firefighters who can adapt quickly and efficiently. Calls like this should remind us all of those long cold nights on which the satisfaction of a job well done, and the community of the fire service, are all that can keep us warm.

Jamie Coutts is chief of the Greater Slave Lake Regional Fire Service and a regular contributor to Fire Fighting in Canada / Canadian Firefighter. @chiefcoutts

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