By Jamie Coutts
Editor’s note: Chief Jamie Coutts’ perspective on the fire that ravaged Fort McMurray, burning 10 per cent of the city, is unique. Coutts, chief of the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service, took his experience from the 2011 fire that decimated 40 per cent of his community to Fort Mac on May 3, with firefighters Ryan Coutts and Patrick McConnell, part of the department’s FireSmart team that was developed post-2011 and is trained in wildland and structural fire fighting, structural protection, ICS 200, emergency preparedness and other disciplines (see Tackling the interface). Coutts provides a first-hand account of his first 24 hours in Fort McMurray.
We had been watching the Fort McMurray updates on our Alberta Wildfire app for a couple days, keenly aware of the fire’s proximity to the City of Fort McMurray. As the fire grew we started to wonder if anyone would call for our structure-protection trailers or crews. Monday evening, May 2, at 10 p.m., we received a call: “Do you have a structure-protection trailer? How much do you charge per day?” And so the conversation went for about an hour back and forth. I could tell at this point there didn’t seem to be much of a worry; people in Fort McMurray were just trying to look ahead. I called in a couple of the FireSmart crew guys and we got a trailer ready, and rigged up a one-ton with a tank and pump. The call came that the Regional Emergency Operations Centre (REOC) would decide at 7 a.m., and let us know.
At 7 a.m. exactly on May 3 we received a call. The REOC would like us to deliver a trailer to Fort McMurray and drop it off. After that, we would be released to head home. Patrick McConnell, Ryan Coutts and I decided we would pack a bag and take our wildfire gear; we had been down this road before and decided better safe than sorry. We were on the road by 8 a.m. and drove straight to Fort McMurray, listening to broadcasts about the fire and changes from the previous night as we went. There were so many similarities to the Slave Lake fire in 2011 that we started to talk about what deploying the gear would look like, and what challenges we would face from all the people and organizations involved. We discussed the fact that we would be heading into a situation that people still felt was under control and that we would have to sell our way in.
We arrived at 12:30 p.m. and headed into the REOC: it was like walking into an ant hill – people were everywhere, maps, updates, Smart Boards. We were asked to drop off the trailer and lock it up. Keys would be given to operations and we could go. We went out to the trailer and turned our radios to the Fort McMurray frequency for agriculture and forestry and started listening to the reports. Things were definitely heating up. We went back in and asked to do an orientation with the crews that would be using this equipment. The ops manager said he would call them all up, and we could do the orientation right in the parking lot. Shortly after 1 p.m., about 40 people showed up; we talked briefly about being prepared, having LACES (lookouts, anchors, communications, escape routes, and safety zones), talked about what could be saved and what couldn’t if the fire hit the city, and what the conditions might be like. From there Patrick and Ryan did a quick orientation on equipment, setup, and systems. I saw Fort McMurray Chief Darby Allen walking back into the REOC from outside, caught up to him, introduced myself and said, “You will be under immense political pressure during this event – evacuate, don’t evacuate, priorities will be shifting. Follow your heart, follow your gut and do what you know is right.” We left it there and he went back inside. The media was humming around, and you could tell from the smoke column and radio traffic that things were going sideways. The projected wind at the morning briefing was out of the south east, switching to a stronger wind out of the south west. We could see outside that the wind would push the fire past the city limits and then slam the whole side of the fire into the southern neighbourhoods.
We went back into the REOC and told Assistant Deputy Chief Jody Butz at operations that orientation was done and that the Fort McMurray firefighters were taking the trailer. He thanked us and then Chief Allen asked if we would stick around and discuss some of what Slave Lake had been through and look at some operations with the team. (I didn’t tell him at the time but Patrick, Ryan, and I had talked about this outside, and with conditions the way they were, there was absolutely no way we were going anywhere. We had even put our wildfire gear on already.) We waited inside with one of the deputies for a chance to talk to Chief Allen. The forestry manager, Bernie Schmitte, and the operations chief, Butz, were having a briefing meeting while the deputy chief talked about the layout of the city and the neighbourhoods in front of the fire. As we looked out the second storey window at the fire, I excused myself and headed to the operations briefing. I excused myself again and asked the gentlemen if I could interrupt. I had been watching the conditions and hearing the radio chatter and said that I knew we needed to hurry with structure protection; they handed me a map, listened to the plan, immediately endorsed it, and told us where to go to get more help. We left immediately and headed to Station 1 downtown.
At Station 1, fire-service personnel were trying to get organized and keep a helicopter pad free. Firefighters from the city and region were assembling, and gear was being organized. We dumped overnight bags from our one ton, grabbed cases of water (we knew we would need lots) and were assigned another seven firefighters to go with us to meet other firefighters and our structure-protection trailer in Beacon Hill (the first area to be slammed by fire front). Evacuated people were streaming down all lanes as we tried to slowly creep to Beacon Hill. Once we were on Beacon Hill Drive, we tried to find our structure-protection trailer, which was with our friend Dave Tovey from Fort McMurray Fire. We stopped by a park that would provide some distance from where the fire would hit and, along with dozens of Fort Mac firefighters, we started evacuating people (some were still in their houses, others were trying to load motorcycles and campers). The Fort Mac firefighters with us quickly rounded up animals that had been left behind or had been trapped with no owners able to get to them. Then, the set up and fire fight started. The wind picked up, and the sparks started landing. This was the point at which our experience in Slave Lake started to come through for us. It was simple: save the houses that aren’t on fire yet. Hit the spot fires, but once a house goes up, move on – there are just too many to fight. This is an impossible thought to process when you are a firefighter: we put house fires out, period; so when we are asked or told to let some homes burn so others can be saved, it’s tough to absorb and accept.
Patrick and Ryan left and hooked up with the Fort McMurray crews that had our structure-protection trailer. It was too late to deploy in that area so they fought the fires they could, set up hoses where they could and worked with the Fort Mac crews. I didn’t want to be separated from my guys, but I knew their training and experience was needed where they were. I was lucky to be with a large group of volunteers called in from smaller Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo halls – the new recruit class (five weeks in, I was told) and a few captains and training officers. It was all a little overwhelming and I remember thinking “Were these the looks on our faces when Slave Lake burned?” I just kept telling them, “Keep up the good work, fight the fires that need to be fought, what you are doing is saving lives and houses; just keep going.” At one point there was an evacuation and we had to work through that; it was very stressful working through the fact that we were safe, yet surrounded by dozens of burning homes. We worked it through command, and were able to stay in the area. (When I went back days later there were houses left right where this group of firefighters had been fighting fires. It was nice to know we won the battle for a few dozen homes.)
After a couple of hours of working in Beacon Hill, I called Patrick and Ryan and we headed up to the REOC. We talked briefly with Chief Allen and Chief Butz about critical infrastructure and what has to be left for a city to survive. Somehow, through all of this, the city crews had kept the water going to most of the hydrants, and dozens of fire departments were on the way to help. We were tasked with protecting the hospital. We went back to Station 1, grabbed a few guys from Albian Sands Fire and headed to the hospital. Short on gear, we talked with people from the hospital, and received help from the security and maintenance staff. We were able to use a small amount of equipment that Albian had brought and hoses from the hospital to get good coverage of the entire roof of the hospital. You could hear, and see, that just like in Slave Lake, this fire had turned into dozens of small battles across a rather huge battlefield.
Just as we finished getting the roof covered, Capt. Pat Duggan of the Fort McMurray Fire Department came up to the hospital to take command of this area. (Duggan had been married to my cousin, and quickly recognized Ryan and me; funny how small the fire world is. We talked about whether all his family members were out, and they were.) Duggan spotted smoke and fire in a nearby neighbourhood and left with Ryan and Patrick in our one-ton truck: the three of them started that fire fight with a garden hose and a booster reel off the small tank in that one-ton. Duggan quickly called in reinforcements and within minutes had started a fire fight that would last hours and save an entire downtown neighbourhood. From there, we went to a backyard fire with another Fort Mac officer and knocked that down with a garden hose and booster reel again. I was so impressed with the Fort Mac utilities people – all that water being used and yet they somehow kept it going. We went back to the hospital where ash was falling constantly now while the Abasand neighbourhood burned. (Along with half our structure-protection equipment – we didn’t find that out until later). It sounded like a war zone – fireworks from the store going off, propane tanks, oxygen/acetylene torch tanks going off. The smoke was thick and the ash was intense. Duggan called me right then; we talked about the area he was in and hung up. I didn’t get a chance to see him or talk to him again during our time in Fort Mac, but I’m proud to say we worked together.
While we waited for trucks to arrive from Slave Lake, we stopped at Station 1 for some water and a bite to eat. As I was walking to the washroom I almost ran smack into a horse. That’s right – a horse. The owners could not get to their trailer so they evacuated with their two horses to the hall. Add that to the list of things I’ve never seen before. At about 11 p.m. our two trucks arrived from Slave Lake. We checked in at Station 1, picked up firefighter Chad Grunow with Fort McMurray Fire, and headed up into Thickwood for our next assignment. (Grunow stayed with our crews through our entire time in Fort Mac, guiding us, saving his beloved city, even letting our firefighters stay with him in his home; a true friend and a heck of a firefighter.) This assignment was to assist with putting out some wildland fires that kept sneaking up to fence lines and starting structural fires. That completed, we assisted in a neighbourhood where about 10 trailers were on fire. From memory, I believe there were crews from Fort Mac and its new recruit class, Syncrude, Albian Sands, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Slave Lake and Anzac, and I’ve probably missed a few. It was amazing to see all of these people working together trying to save this neighbourhood. This went on until 4 a.m. ,when we finally headed down to MacDonald Island. We parked our trucks, found cots, and stayed there breathing in thick smoke for a couple hours.
I never thought I’d see something like Slave Lake again – we trained hard, shared the lessons learned and participated in every after-action review we could find to make sure an it wouldn’t happen again. I believe the days, weeks, months and years ahead will be even tougher on the people of Fort McMurray than they were here in Slave Lake (it’s hard to believe but I’m sad to say I’m sure of it), and that the after-action reviews will be gruelling, but always remember this: no one died in Fort McMurray (although there was a tragic loss during the evacuation and those young adults will never be forgotten) and 90 per cent of the city was saved, including all critical infrastructure. The people of Fort McMurray will rebuild. A small piece of my heart will always be with them. As terrible as it was, as scary as it was, there is nowhere on Earth I would rather have been that day than in Fort McMurray, trying to help save a city with my brothers and sisters of the Fort McMurray Fire Department. Chief Allen and Chief Butz were amazing to work with; they listened and respected our views based solely on stories out of Slave Lake. In the days that followed as we took on different roles and different fire fights in the city, we worked with hundreds of firefighters from across the province. It was a different experience from Slave Lake as we were there to help in a different way – it wasn’t our city burning. The lessons captured this time will be different, will be from another perspective and will no doubt lead to new ideas and solutions.
Looking forward, we need to examine evacuations. (Mandatory needs to mean mandatory, and the RCMP need legislation to enforce the evacuation.) How, and who fights these urban interface fires needs to be reviewed, and the proper training, equipment, and trucks need to be developed and purchased. Unified command between fire services and forestry needs to be solidified and adopted by all. Healthcare follow-up needs to be implemented for all people who stayed behind and came from afar to assist in extinguishing this fire. The toxins from this type of urban interface fire are not fully understood yet.
In July 2011, I wrote in Canadian Firefighter: “The biggest lesson learned is we have to plan farther – when you’re in wildland areas the world is changing, the weather in the world is changing, and we have to plan with that change.”
This outlook has changed the way our whole fire department operates. We were always a stay-ahead department – if one truck is good we send two, if two trucks are good we send three, and we can, because we’re a regional fire service.
We can add extensive FireSmart operations to this now. I had even said if we had 300 fire trucks lined up we could not have stopped Slave Lake because of 100-kilometre-an-hour winds. If we had that many trucks lined up in Fort Mac could we have saved it all? There is no way to know for sure, but I will say these words one more time: get ahead, stay ahead.
As the wildfire continued to burn, we heard the stories from firefighters involved and critical pieces that were learned from Slave Lake: use of heavy equipment to separate homes saved hundreds, or maybe even thousands of other houses; having water through thick and thin was huge – the utilities people were incredible; transportation folks made sure routes were clear and trucks were fuelled – just amazing. There will always be more to learn, but there were some lessons learned from previous fires.
For our crews here in Slave Lake it had been an active spring with multiple deployments and many busy days; we think of our fellow firefighters in Fort McMurray and hope that they remembered to take care of themselves, and to take care of each other. To Chief Allen, and Chief Butz – remember to go easy on yourselves; you did a great job in an extreme environment.
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