By Jamie Coutts
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the September 2015 edition of Fire Fighting in Canada. It has been updated.
By Jamie Coutts
The wildland/urban interface is a tricky area.
I can say from the experience that we had in May 2011 when 40 per cent of Slave Lake was burned by wildfires and another 45 homes lost in the surrounding area, that we were unprepared.
I have spoken across Canada about what happened that day. I like to think that our regional fire department has done phenomenal work to try to get ourselves to a new standard.
The solution, as I see it, is simple: Get firefighters from both sides, who are already the best at what they do, and bridge the training between wildland firefighting and structural firefighting.
In Alberta, we are lucky to have a state-of-the-art wildland training centre in Hinton. We are also lucky to have many qualified schools, and fire departments that provide instruction to become NFPA 1001 structural firefighters.
All agencies try to tackle the wildland/urban interface problem with some type of training – NFPA 1051 (wildland) or Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) 215 sprinkler training – which is tough, because no agency focuses solely on structural
protection during wildfires.
As I stared at 12 Avenue SE in Slave Lake in May 2011 while 35 houses, dozens of campers, and even more vehicles burned around me, I remember thinking: 1. We were never taught to expect anything like this. 2. I will do my best to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. These thoughts were later joined by another: After this happened in Kelowna in 2003, why didn’t we all learn from that?
Since 2011 the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service has been involved in several projects to better train our firefighters and make our community safer.
The government of Alberta spent $20 million in and around our community to FireSmart the area and make it safer. I can tell you from the grey hair and stress that this has been no easy feat, but I will also say it had to be done, and the pressure to provide accountability was immense.
The project hinged on the seven disciplines within the FireSmart Canada program:
- Fuel management
- Inter-agency co-operation
Within each discipline there were dozens of projects, committees, meetings and discussions. It would take months for me to tell you all that we learned. Is the FireSmart project done? No. It never is. But I will say that we are headed in the right direction, with the right people, equipment and knowledge. We have tried very hard to share what we have learned and to engage new agencies along the way.
We have a young team of fire-service professionals here that was custom-built after the 2011 fires, as part of the FireSmart program. This FireSmart crew is trained in all aspects of the fire world including:
- Wildland firefighting
- NFPA 1001, structural fire fighting
- NFPA 1002, aerial ops
- NFPA 472 ops, dangerous goods
- Emergency medical responder
- S-215 structural protection
- Search and rescue, basics, team leader, manager, incident leadership
- Basic fire safety codes officer
- Technical rescue, rope, ice, confined space, boat
- Incident command system 200
- Emergency preparedness
- FireSmart, home assessments, vegetation management, heavy equipment use
- Chainsaw faller certification
- Alberta Forestry helicopter attack crew
- Forestry leadership course
It has taken all these courses and more, combined with practical, hands-on experience to get our firefighters to a level that allows them complete access to all fires and emergency incidents. We use this crew to train our other full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters. We use this crew as a first-up team to deploy to all types of incidents in our area and throughout Alberta. This team is our connection to dozens of agencies that make up our regional protective-services team.
Since 2011, this team has deployed to 11 separate large-scale incidents in Alberta. We have worked from High River in the south to High Level in the north, trying to pay forward all the help that people sent us in our time of need. We work very closely with Alberta Environment Sustainable Resources Development to supply this crew as a helicopter attack crew, and to do structure-protection deployments for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry throughout the province.
Working closely with ESRD has given us training, experience and insight that we could not have amassed on our own. This FireSmart crew has led all of our firefighters to new levels of success; in 2015 alone we did five deployments, with 40 different firefighters from our region, helping other communities protect their citizens. It has been our honour to assist these other communities. We learned a ton at each deployment, and I like to hope that we have spread some of our knowledge.
Everywhere we go our firefighters know that the message is simple: Work together, help the people, put your ego in your pocket. This might sound simple but egos and personalities can jeopardize any well-meaning operation. We were very lucky to be called on to assist the Wabasca Fire Department and the Bigstone Fire Department in the Wabasca area north of Slave Lake to protect both of these areas from a wildfire that was just a few kilometres from homes. Thousands of people were evacuated and we were part of a privileged team of structure firefighters, wildland firefighters, RCMP, EMS, and emergency management / municipal / First Nation people who stayed behind and protect homes. We worked hand in hand, all firefighters, forestry personnel, and emergency agencies. It was an awesome sight to see the co-ordination and dedication of these people. (Although I will confess my 40-year-old back didn’t like the hard work one bit!)
While all of this was going on we had a fire two kilometres from residences just outside of Slave Lake in Municipal District 124. This fire caused the evacuation of dozens of people and crews had to provide structure protection to nine homes. Our structure-protection trailers have been well-used since 2011.
After just a few days off, ESRD asked us to head to the High Level district to assist with structure-protection duties up there. Of course our tired answer was, “Where can we help?” After a six-hour drive the crew had a couple minutes to eat lunch and it was straight to a 50-home structure-protection job with the High Level firefighters – they were using their local structure-protection trailer and equipment.
Our FireSmart crew was excited to be able to help out such hardworking, dedicated firefighters. The crews worked together and accomplished the job while bombers flew over, and helicopters bucketed, and wildland firefighters fought fire just 500 metres from their location. We continued on with this deployment and Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt asked us to send a few more firefighters and some trucks to help with the fight. Three days in, we sent more people and more equipment to join High Level, Peace River, Grande Prairie County, Greenview County and Fort Vermillion firefighters. We all trained together, we all learned from each other, and we all were given the opportunity to help protect the citizens in the area.
This firefighting operation was headed by the dedicated professionals with ESRD, in this vast area – three complexes under the management of an area team (a first for me for sure). The daily work keeping hundreds of people, dozens of aircraft and dozens of pieces of heavy equipment all under control within the ICS model was amazing. ESRD’s team pushed through the chaotic days and nights in some of the worst forest-fire conditions on record.
During this High Level deployment, a group of firefighters from many towns and First Nations was sent to the Tall Cree Reserve about 120 kilometres from High Level to do structure protection of 39 homes on the north reserve, while 144 people were evacuated. Firefighters worked together to protect the structures and people left behind; they even spent time feeding and watering horses, dogs and cats. The First Nation firefighters were very gracious and allowed us the use of their fire hall and then their main office as a bunkhouse. There were scary times as the fire sped toward the mixed team of firefighters. Bombers, helicopters and wildland firefighters did the daily battle with the fire to keep it away from all the structures. The operation was a truly well-oiled machine; no homes were lost and no one was injured. Another reserve, at Meandering River, was on standby; this community started its preparation and crews attended the reserve to make an attack plan and do a structure-protection plan. Luckily the wildland firefighters were able to keep this fire away from the community.
On the long drive home we watched as fire columns spotted the skies around our area and wondered when the next fire would need us. It came as little surprise when a fire 30 kilometres north of Slave Lake threatened a wildland campus owned by our local college. Wildland firefighters were waging war against this fire that was burning in conditions and had fire behaviour unlike any other season.
On the way to this fire we drove through the wildland fire to get to cabins while the ESRD wildland firefighters were doing structure protection on remote sites to the north. Eventually we also worked together to sprinkler a camp, and as per our unusual bad luck, a helicopter crashed close by while we were on site (the pilot was saved by another pilot and engineer – he had a concussion and broken jaw but, fortunately, survived the experience).
This was the end of a very, very long spring and early summer: our first prescribed burn was March 29 and this fire finished up for us on July 21.
I have seen firsthand how well all emergency service groups, governments and citizens can work together. I have also watched in horror as thousands of people were evacuated while emergency workers from all types of groups fought to save their homes in Saskatchewan, British Columbia and other areas of Alberta. The United States also adds to the wildfire news daily. We have been able to work with firefighters from Alberta, Ontario, Idaho, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
In our area, we are trying to do a better job moving forward. We have plans to train more people, expand our training centre and share our knowledge with all who will take it. (This is key; if egos won’t allow new information we can’t force it.) We strive to improve ourselves, and to absorb as much as we can while we continue the war on fires. Continued work with all emergency and government groups, and First Nations, will only add to our region’s abilities. As always, I hope people will read this, share their stories and get out of their comfort zones to become bigger participants in the emergency world. Don’t wait for them to come to you – go to them first.
Jamie Coutts is the fire chief of Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service in Alberta. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @chiefcoutts