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True Stories: Strike Team Inferno

The incredibe, action-packed tale of the firefighters who risked their lives battling one of the biggest wildire disasters in Canadian history.

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True Stories: Strike Team Inferno

SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2011, 5:30 P.M.

The fire truck screamed out of Slave Lake, Alberta, towards the smoke. As he drove, Jamie Coutts, fire chief for the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service, gave advice to his sole passenger, his 15-year-old son, Ryan: Take time to analyze the situation, stay calm, don’t get burned. Ryan stared blankly ahead. The fire was burning towards houses east of town. His eyes and mind were locked onto the grey puffs rising over the trees.

It was a warm Saturday. It hadn’t rained for days. A wind blew steadily from the southeast. Jamie and Ryan were speeding away from the fire hall, where 62 volunteer firefighters had been summoned, Ryan among them. “What are you doing here?” Jamie demanded when he’d spotted him. Ryan, a tall and sturdy junior firefighter, replied that he could help with equipment. Jamie had eventually nodded and put his son to work. At 1 p.m. that afternoon, a fire had started in the forest west of town, and crews had been sent to water down homes in the area, just in case. By the time a second fire had been spotted on the opposite side of town, about nine kilometres out, the hall quickly emptied. “Fire up the truck, bud,” Jamie had said. “It’s you and me.”

Now they pulled onto a side road to block the fire from hitting Mitsue, a nearby forest community of spread-out acreages, some hundred homes in total. Ryan strung out a line and got ready to begin spraying. The hose sat limp in his hands as Jamie tried to start the water pump. No water came from the truck. Jamie tried again. Still no water. Finally, as another fire truck pulled in, the hose in Ryan’s hands jerked to life.

His elation was short-lived. “Time to start evacuating,” said Jamie. The wind was plowing the fire westward. The firefighters went from house to house, pounding on doors, telling people to leave. Now. RCMP and staff from other local agencies joined in, creating an evacuation force of about ten vehicles. As evacuees fled into Slave Lake seeking safety, air tankers dropped water and retardant nearby, colouring the forest with a rusty red hue.

In the rush of evacuation, Ryan ended up in another truck with firefighter Ron Potts and captain Karl Hill. The last residents had left Mitsue, and the crew wanted to see how far north the fire had gone. Their truck turned onto a road where trees blazed on both sides, billowing black smoke. To Ryan, the scene seemed like something from a disaster movie. The cab went quiet. Potts looked at Hill for guidance on whether or not to proceed. “Your call, cap.”

They decided not to risk it. Potts slammed the truck into reverse. The crew left the horror scene, retreating to the safety of the highway.

Located about 250 kilometres north of Edmonton, deep in the boreal forest, Slave Lake is a bustling oil and timber town with a population of 6,800. Countless pickup trucks on the town’s wide main street pass by a Boston Pizza, a career college and hotels occupied by transient workers. Roughly 1,500 more people live in outlying communities, part of the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River. The district’s slogan is “rugged and real,” a phrase locals utter proudly.

The town of Slave Lake is on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake, which is more than 100 kilometres long. It is otherwise closed in by trees, and wildfires are relatively common. For newcomers, the smoke that drifts into town during fire season can be disconcerting. “But after a while you become like a typical resident,” says Courtney Murphy, newscaster for Lake-FM, the local radio station. “You just kind of shrug it off. ‘Oh, it’s another forest fire. The fire department knows how to deal with it. Nothing’s going to happen.'”

A map hanging in the Slave Lake fire hall illustrates this history. The town is surrounded by splotches of colour, each representing a different blaze. Blue is 1968. That fire swept towards Slave Lake from the south, burning through forest at 6.5 kilometres an hour. A last-minute weather change stopped it short of town. Purple is 1998, when ash fell on Slave Lake as stockpiles of commercial lumber burned nearby. Green is 2001, when ten homes were razed in Chisholm, a hamlet 60 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake. As in 1968, the fire died just south of town, thanks to a change in weather.

Red is 2011, when the weather did the exact opposite. The red bleeds right into Slave Lake.


Next: Dangerous weather ups the ante as the fire continues to spread

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Ryan Coutts worked at the fire hall until 3 a.m. The municipal district and town had both declared a state of local emergency. In Mitsue, firefighters continued to struggle against the blaze. Thirteen homes had been lost that Saturday night, with another 13 properties damaged. The fire had also destroyed one of the fire department’s wildland trucks.

As the weary firefighters wolfed down breakfast that morning, they felt optimistic. The wind had let up. The sky was bright blue. The worst was over, it seemed. Jamie Coutts sent half of the crew home to rest. But within an hour, he was paging them all back. The fire to the west was moving towards the lakeshore hamlets of Widewater, Wagner and Canyon Creek, which have more than a thousand homes between them. The fire service split in two. Half the crew watered down homes to the west, while the other half put out hot spots in the Mitsue area.

Back in Slave Lake, Jamie went into an emergency meeting with town and forestry staff at around 3 p.m. The message of the meeting was simple: If nothing changes, we’ll keep fighting the fire as we are. But the weather continued to work against the firefighters. Rising temperature was intersecting with falling relative humidity, creating prime burning conditions. Firefighters were already setting up sprinklers along the highway on the southeast edge of town, just in case. Outside of town, RCMP were closing highways. A third fire north of Slave Lake, first spotted that afternoon, threatened to block the only other escape route.

With his BlackBerry buzzing incessantly, Jamie left the meeting early. As he ran out of the government building, he passed staff from the municipal district, who were on their way in. They had fled their office on the southeast edge of town as the fire drew near. Jamie drove out to take a look, stopping at the visitor centre along the highway. Sparks showered down on its green metal roof. The wind was now blasting westward with alarming ferocity. The column of smoke from the wildfire was leaning onto its side. The game had changed entirely.

Jamie knew what he had to do. He reached for his radio. “Everyone back to town!” The evacuated areas east and west of Slave Lake were no longer the priority. The Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service would make a last stand on 12th and 13th Streets, Slave Lake’s easternmost residential roads, and do what it could.

As Jamie raced back into town, the conflagration roared relentlessly in the same direction, fuelled by bone-dry vegetation and fresh oxygen. Trees bent like crescents in the lashing wind before exploding into flame.

Firefighter Ron Potts got Jamie’s message west of Slave Lake, where his crew had been watering down houses. Potts floored it towards town at 140 kilometres an hour. As he passed his parents’ house, he could see them getting into their motor home, scrambling to evacuate. Potts could see his wife and kids there too, sitting in his diesel pickup truck hitched to a fifth-wheel camper. Mass panic and confusion gripped the town as smoke blocked the sun. No evacuation order had been issued, but many of the people of Slave Lake could read the sky and knew it was time to get out.

Potts knew his wife couldn’t take the truck, never having learned to drive standard. “I’ve got to get them out of here,” he told the other firefighters. They understood. But he was of little help to his family. No one was leaving town. Slave Lake was gridlocked, with traffic crawling towards the safety of the Walmart parking lot on the south edge of the community. I can’t just sit here, Potts thought as he looked at the brake lights ahead of him. He decided, I need to join this fight. Potts called his Dad to come get the truck and said goodbye to his family. He said everything would be okay. And then he ran towards the inferno.

Next: Water runs out as the fire reaches town, forcing tough decisions

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SUNDAY, MAY 15, 5:00 P.M.

Captain Karl Hill was walking towards his fire truck on Highway 88, Slave Lake’s eastern edge, about to join the other firefighters on 12th Street, when he noticed embers on his shoulder. He realized he had no helmet and pulled a balaclava over his face to keep his hair from igniting. Most of the firefighters weren’t wearing structural firefighting gear, just coveralls and boots. They had been dressed for wetting down houses when they got Jamie’s call for teams to regroup on 12th and 13th streets.

On the residential streets, the firefighters hooked up to hydrants and started spraying. The treeline behind the homes on the east side of 12th street lit up. As Hill knocked down fences and tried to put out the treeline, the smoke brought him to his knees. When it got too difficult to breathe, he turned the nozzle on his hose to fog, a firefighting trick that allows a few breaths of clean oxygen. Others did the same. The smoke, wind and debris made it difficult not to choke.

As Hill returned to the street from a backyard, he noticed a house engulfed in flames. At first, it didn’t sink in that the forest fire had entered Slave Lake; it was just a house on fire. The firefighters tried to save it and protect the neighbouring houses, as they always did when a structure burned. But then Hill looked to his left and saw several more houses on fire. As he spun around, he realized entire blocks of houses in the southeastern quadrant of town were ablaze. He felt powerless.

Suddenly, reality took hold: The wildfire was now in town, and nothing could be done to stop it. Jamie, who had arrived on the scene about an hour earlier, phoned his wife, Kirsten, who was at the fire hall with Ryan and their 12-year-old daughter, Sara. “Take the kids and evacuate with everybody,” Jamie said. Kirsten protested. She wanted the family to stick together. But Ryan advised otherwise, even though he wanted to stay and fight fires. “If Dad says we have to go, we have to go,” he told his mother. They tried to leave, but hit the gridlock. What should have been a three-minute drive took half an hour, and even then they couldn’t reach the still-blocked highway. They turned back to the fire hall.

6:00 P.M.

Jamie sensed the firefighters wouldn’t be able to perform without knowing their families were safe, so he told them to take a few minutes and contact them. Cellphone service was spotty, but texting seemed to work. Hill texted his 13-year-old son to let him know he was okay. His son texted him every half hour for the rest of the night, and Hill made sure he never missed that text. “I’m good,” Hill would reply.

As the fire spread to more houses, Jamie desperately scanned the darkening sky for help. Not a single water bomber or helicopter in sight. He phoned his long-time friend Iain Johnston, duty officer for the local provincial forestry office, which had been fighting the fires in the bush all weekend. “Am I the only one who’s not seeing any damn bombers out here?” Jamie snapped.

“They’re all grounded, Jamie.” The winds were clocked at more than 100 kilometres an hour that day – category-1 hurricane strength. The veteran pilots Johnston had seen after their flights that afternoon had never seemed so shaken. Waves on the lake made picking up water extremely dangerous, and heavy smoke had closed the airport runway.

Jamie knew Johnston was right. His face felt as if it was being sandblasted in an oven. Sending up aircraft would be madness. Jamie and Johnston had been through 20 years of firefighting, and had never imagined living through anything like this. As their town burned, the two men now spoke as brothers. “Good luck, Jamie,” Johnston said. Jamie carried those words with him into the rest of the fight.

It was a losing battle, one Slave Lake firefighters couldn’t win alone. They needed outside help, fast. Jamie made one more call, this time to the 911 dispatcher. “Our town is on fire,” he said. “Phone everyone you dispatch for, and see if they’ll send trucks and people.”

7:00 P.M.

In the 1968 wildfire, wind had thrown firebrands several kilometres ahead of the fire. The same thing happened now. Embers and flaming pieces of tree flew far over the heads of the firefighters and landed in town, randomly lighting up more buildings. The ratty Salvation Army thrift store near the hard-hit southeast was spared, while the $36-million government centre in the middle of town started to burn, forcing the 25 people using the building as the Emergency Operation Centre to flee to the local college. Meanwhile, west of Slave Lake, fire plowed into the lakeshore hamlets that had been evacuated earlier in the day.

The firefighters had now been awake and working for nearly 30 hours. Utterly exhausted, they made split-second decisions about what to save and what to sacrifice. Fires were coming dangerously close to the hospital as the flames at the government centre grew. Jamie asked for a no-nonsense assessment from his captains. The crew at the government centre reported that it couldn’t hold. “It’s easy, then,” replied Jamie. “Send everything to the hospital.”

The town’s power was gone. Firefighters hooked up to hydrants and got nothing. Slave Lake’s million-gallon reservoir was being sucked dry, and the water system had no backup power to refill it. Once water had run out, the firefighters used anything they could to stomp out flames or cut away fences to keep fire from spreading: boots, axes, chainsaws.

Back at the fire hall, Jamie looked at a map. Its blue spots exasperated him. There was water everywhere, with the lake to the north and a river on the town’s outskirts. A creek cut through town. Yet he couldn’t get water into the 11 trucks where it was needed most.

The firefighters drew lines on a map. They would try and hold the fire to defensive perimeters until reinforcements arrived. To keep the flames from spreading beyond those lines, they would bulldoze trees in front yards. If that didn’t work, they would knock down houses.

Around 8 p.m., evacuees were finally given the green light to leave town. While a line of cars snaked out of Slave Lake, fire trucks and other emergency crews from elsewhere made their way in. As trucks arrived throughout the night, full of water, they were immediately tasked out to the many fires burning in town. One of the first crews to reach Slave Lake saved the telecommunications building near the radio station, a key piece of infrastructure. By Monday morning, the fire force had grown to 200 firefighters. It was time to push back.

Next: As the fire is finally stopped, a community shows its gratitude to those who risked their lives

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When Len MacCharles, deputy chief of operations for the Calgary Fire Department, arrived in town early Monday morning, he saw a squad of volunteer firefighters who had given their all. “They were emotionally and physically spent,” says MacCharles. “They were done.” Many of the men would suddenly find themselves crying, a regular occurrence in the days and weeks that followed. Jamie estimates he cried more in the two weeks after the fire than he had in his entire life beforehand.

The defensive perimeter plan had worked. Only one house was lost inside that line. The town’s schools and college had survived, as had the hospital. The RCMP detachment in the southeast was also spared, though heavily damaged by smoke.

But the residential devastation was immense. The southeast part of town was barely recognizable. Entire blocks were incinerated, with nothing left of the structures, not even chimneys. Six apartment buildings were levelled. Insurable losses from the fires totalled around $700 million. Between the two fires in the area, more than 450 homes burned down, leaving some 700 families with nowhere to live. Seven firefighters and six cops were among the homeless, including Cpl. Chris Murphy, who helped evacuate the southeast as his own home burned to the ground. “We got nothing out of our house, but at the end of the day I still have my family with me,” says Murphy. Incredibly, no one died in the fires that weekend (though a helicopter pilot, Jean-Luc Deba, died the following week after crashing into the lake while fighting fires).

All told, 34 fire departments from cities and towns throughout Alberta, including St. Albert and Edmonton, sent about 700 people to Slave Lake. Rotating in shifts, they helped extinguish smouldering basements and fence off the holes, making the town safe for residents to return. When the out-of-town firefighters left Slave Lake two weeks later, Jamie was both moved and terrified. He had made strong friendships with those who had come to help, as had his son, who worked the night shift with a Calgary crew. “Ryan went from being a 15-year-old boy to being a man through this process,” says Jamie.

The exodus procession of reinforcement firefighters was kept low- key to avoid inciting fear. It was still fire season, after all, and the fire department was losing its backup. But as the trucks crawled out of town, the people of Slave Lake, who had returned a few days earlier, didn’t show fear, but gratitude. They honked their horns, and got out of their cars and clapped. Jamie looked back and couldn’t see the end of the line of trucks. The last thing the firefighters saw before leaving town were police standing at the side of the road and saluting.

Next: How Slave Lake is bouncing back, and the fire’s surprising origin.

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Today, recovery is well underway. The hard-hit southeast now resembles a construction site with new houses popping up everywhere. “Slowly, there were kids and dogs and cats and people and noises,” says Jamie. “The street lights came back on. Every day, you’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s part of what normal should look like.'”

The fire, however, was the first of many battles for the people of Slave Lake. After sleeping in gymnasiums and RVs, they had to sort out insurance for lost property. In June and July, the town was hit by flooding. Then, late in the fall, after extensive investigation, the Alberta government announced that arson was the likely cause of what insurers now claim was the largest wildfire loss in Canadian history. Charges are pending.

As for Jamie, he is already dreading the start of this year’s warmer weather and what the next fire season could bring. There is a whiteboard in the fire hall, on which the firefighters mapped out their plans during the disaster. Blue squiggles show where bulldozers saved houses. Red lines indicate where, after reaching town, the blaze went north and hit the lake, finally dying out. In November, almost six months after the fire, the ink remained untouched, a reminder of the hope and horror that the firefighters of Slave Lake experienced. “I just can’t bring myself to erase it,” Jamie says.