Understanding what it took to tame “The Beast”

“In six years, I don’t know if I’ve ever actually been scared before, on an emergency scene. But that night, I was.”

So says Lt. Trey Hale of the Beiseker Fire Department of the night of May 3, his first fighting the flames in Fort McMurray. At its height, the wildfire overtook more than 500,000 hectares of forest and municipal land — enough to make even the most experienced rescue workers anxious.

The Horse River Fire, as it was eventually named, ended up requiring more than 2,100 firefighters to get under control, and continued to rage on more than eight weeks after its onset. Crews from all over Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Alaska, and even 280 fighters from as far away as South Africa, came in to assist, prepared with arsenals of advanced strategies, techniques, and equipment.

However, given the scale of the fires, rescue workers had to take into consideration a bevy of unique circumstances beyond their usual measures when combatting this historic blaze.

Joining forces

There are two typical classes of firefighter in Alberta: structural and forestry. These divisions do not ordinarily overlap in duties, as Lt. Austin Burley, also of Beiseker, explains.

Lt. Trey Hale assesses the fire raging on along the banks of the Athabasca River, May 3, as it approaches the Beiseker department’s assigned post.
Photo courtesy of Greg Verrall
“To simplify,” says Burley, “structural is what we [the Beiseker department] are. We fight house fires; we cut people out of cars, save cats out of trees. On the other hand, forestry firefighters deal specifically with natural forest fires. They aren’t normally dealing with structures, or fires within city limits.”

Operating with two kinds of firefighter allows better allocation of resources in response to day-to-day emergencies, ensuring manpower doesn’t need to be constantly divided.

But what happens when a fire defies the arbitrary boundary between city and wilderness? Fires like Fort McMurray, and Slave Lake in 2011, both began in the forest, but grew to such an extent that they spread into neighbouring municipalities. Firefighters classify these types of progressions as “wildland urban interface fires.”

“If you have a heavily dense forest area, such as Banff or Slave Lake or Fort McMurray, when those trees light up and that forest fire moves, it generally moves towards the town, and from there the town starts to burn,” explains Hale.

The dual aspect of these fires, says Beiseker Capt. Adam Harris, makes the situation more complicated than what crews are used to seeing. A fire event of this magnitude is something rare for these firefighters, and the vast area overtaken, the number of structures involved, and amount of available fuel to burn made the Fort Mac wildfire particularly difficult to handle. Inventive measures had to be taken to gain the upper hand.

Such extensive operations also require strong communication and networking between the provincial effort (forestry) and, in this case, multiple municipal departments (structural), in order to pool resources most effectively to fight the fire.

The initial response

Regularly, forestry crews responding to a fire of this ilk will be deployed in what are called “helitack” or “rapattack” crews — when helicopters come into play.

The average helitack team includes four firefighters and a pilot. The firefighters are immediately dispatched to the site of a fire, after which the pilot is sent to the nearest predetermined water source.

Capt. Greg Verrall rushes into the brush beyond a nearby water treatment plant after the fire has died down, attempting to douse hotspots before they flare up again. Photo courtesy of Trey Hale

By the time the helicopter returns with water, the crew has usually divined the best course of action and is able to “direct the helicopter to drop water where they deem necessary,” according to Harris.

When conditions are favourable, water and “boots on the ground” in such a manner can kill a blaze, says Harris. Unfortunately, conditions near Fort McMurray rendered this approach less effective than it needed to be. The fires began in several distant locations almost simultaneously, stretching response resources thin from the start.

The perfect firestorm

The fires were helped along significantly in their growth by a severe lack of precipitation in the area in the week leading up to May 3, the day mandatory evacuation got underway. Consistent daytime temperatures in the low 30s Celsius may have also made the region particularly combustible, says Harris.

“Whatever fuel we have is going to burn more rapidly in conditions like what they were experiencing,” he says.

Wind factors are also “critical” in effecting the spread of a fire, explains Harris, “because it is primarily what is helping that fire to grow, as well as helps determine in what direction it will grow in.”

Fire crews from departments across Alberta wait anxiously in a staging area to be assigned to their next tasks. Hale credits much of the strength of his department throughout the firefight to the support they received from volunteers, and the co-ordination and camaraderie felt between departments as they adapted their positions to best fight as a unified team. “It’s what kept us going,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Trey Hale
The time of day a fire starts can also influence how the fire behaves.

“A fire that starts or is taking place around the hours of 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., which is generally the hottest time of the day, when the relative humidity is actually lower than the absolute temperature, it promotes really aggressive fire behaviour,” says Harris. “We call that crossover.”

Crossover is so named because the blend of low humidity and high temperature drains valuable water from the air and the surrounding environment, building the perfect storm for a fire-starting dry spell.

Global News meteorologist Anthony Farnell said of the situation: “Firefighters use this 30-30-30 rule. It involves temperature, humidity and wind speed. When they’re all around 30, it’s bad news.”

“There were a lot of things we had to worry about, especially with it being such a big fire… humidity, wind direction, speed, and the temperatures,” recalls Hale. “We’d be fighting a fire that was going towards town, but then two minutes later, the wind would change and it would start going another way, so from there you would have to back up and make another plan to deal with that.”

Assembling the team

Burley, Harris, and Hale were all on shift May 3 when they heard of the fires growing out of control up north. By 6 p.m., news media made it clear that departments across the province would need to pitch in if the fire was to be contained. Fort McMurray departments were entirely overwhelmed, and were calling for back up.

“For most firefighters, the first thought through our head is the boys — we want to back up our brothers,” says Burley.

Beiseker Fire Department Capt. Greg Verrall looks on as the wildfire grows, spreading closer to a residential street in a Fort McMurray suburb on May 4. Photo courtesy of Trey HaleThe Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) worked alongside local departments in Fort Mac to assess what aid was required, and co-ordinated fire crews to respond accordingly. In Beiseker’s case, Hale recalls his team being scheduled for dispatch the very same night. Off-duty staff members were called in to replace the four firefighters from Beiseker who would be heading up north.

Since the Beiseker department was called mainly for extra manpower on the structural fire front, they brought only their smallest rescue unit, a truck without ladders or extraneous equipment to hinder it. With dangerously dry weather conditions prevalent across the province, they had to make sure they weren’t depleting their home station.

“At the end of the day, you have to protect your home district first right? So only when you can spare resources, that’s when you do,” says Harris of the precautions.

“There is a chain of command in the province, and they call for resources as needed in order to prevent a bunch of people from going up there, and [the crews] losing control of the incident because they don’t know how many guys are out there,” Harris explains. “Training needs to be taken into account. Having a bunch of civilians freelancing, running around doing their own thing isn’t necessarily helpful, no matter how much they want to help or get involved.”

The game plan

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Fort McMurray forestry manager Bernie Schmitte described the Horse River Fire as “very complex,” presenting “multiple fire fronts and explosive conditions.”

Establishing a water supply is always of foremost concern to forestry crews, says Capt. Harris, who fought many a sizable fire in the wilderness north of Fort Mac when he was stationed in northern Alberta.

The dense forests in that area prevents any access by truck, making water supply a particular problem when fighting up north. Aside from helicopters, the only sources of water are standing ponds and wells, which require portable pumps to access.

Smoke rises as members of the Anzac and Beiseker fire departments rush to stage their trucks to protect homes from an approaching blaze. Photo courtesy of Trey HaleOnce crews establish a source of water, and know what types of trees are burning and what health they’re in (which also changes the burn rate of the fire) they can proceed with offensive strategies.

“If it’s a really strong wind, you would likely set up a defensive guard first. So you would start cutting trees down, putting yourself downwind at a safe distance, creating a firebreak by eliminating the fuel that would burn,” explains Harris.

Backburns operate by much the same logic, Burley explains, by using small, controlled fires to consume available fuel instead of cutting trees down, which can take up valuable time and manpower.

“The idea of it is that stuff that’s burnt already won’t burn again,” says Burley.

Meanwhile, structural teams fought the fires in town, tending to hotspots caused by raining ash, helping evacuate civilians and rescuing others in need.

Fort McMurray structural fire crews had their work cut out for them once the fire jumped the Athabasca River, spreading into the Thickwood neighbourhood. The blaze was so active, said firefighter Mark Stephenson in an interview with CBC News, and demanded so many resources, that he recalled putting out grass fires with only his two feet because all of his team’s hoses were already being used.

Another common structural tactic involved using hand-line hoses to create “water curtains” to isolate burning buildings while shielding neighbouring structures. Though this strategy will seldom stop nearby buildings from suffering heat damage, it usually buys crews enough time to stomp out the most prominent fire in the area without worrying that it will spread.

A fire that sparked from raining embers from the original Fort McMurray wildfire MWF-009 engulfs a condonium complex on May 5, as crews work to protect surrounding structures by isolating the blaze.
Photo courtesy of James Houghton
And in the event that crews weren’t able to safely salvage property from the flames, Hale says an essential part of their strategy also came in knowing when to fold. Oftentimes, says Hale, you have to pick your battles with a fire this size, and realize there is only so much you can do.

“The first couple days were pretty rough, like we’d be out there and eventually somebody would have to pass out on some person’s lawn cause you’re just so tired while you’re fighting at their house,” says Hale. “And I think we pretty much lived off of Ritz crackers for the first 48 hours.

“So much was happening. The first thing you saw coming into town was, well, that you couldn’t see anything at all,” continues Hale. “All you really can see is maybe a couple hundred feet from you as we came up, then you look over and you see Beacon Hill, gone. You come back down the hill and you see the Waterways area, it’s gone. Then you drive through Abasand, gone.

“We went in knowing it was going to be huge, we knew what to expect,” he says, “but it was a way bigger fire than anything I’d ever been on before.”

While rescue personnel are equipped with the skills to carry them through emergency situations, their training can only take them so far. As the Beiseker crew suggests, perhaps the most valuable asset on an assignment as dire as the Fort McMurray wildfires is the knowledge that crews are not alone in their fight, and their efforts are greatly appreciated.

Beiseker firefighters James Houghton and Capt. Greg Verrall look across the valley on May 4 as a plume of smoke rises, signalling more work to come after an already exhausting first night.
Photo courtesy of Alex Jackson
Hale recalls driving up Highway 63, travelling against a parking lot of oncoming southbound traffic, being bombarded by a fanfare of car horns and well-wishes from evacuees.

“There’s just a true feeling of passion about it in that moment, it’s amazing. We had so much support going up there. It definitely makes you feel a lot happier — makes you proud of what you do. It starts you off on the right foot.”

Hale credits much of the firefighters’ success to the support of Red Cross volunteers, who worked tirelessly to provide food and shelter for the crews.

“That support is what keeps us going,” he says.

Final estimates by Fort McMurray crews total the damages to the city at around 10 per cent of pre-existing structures, which means although 2,400 homes, stores, and workplaces were lost, more than 25,000 were saved. Though the Beiseker team counts that as an overall win, Hale insists those figures still don’t do justice to the damage he witnessed first-hand.

“We’re happy to have saved as much as we did, absolutely,” says Hale. “There was a lot burnt, but thankfully it didn’t end up being to the extent of those first communities we saw. So in that sense we were relieved, but there’s always going to be something else — and when it happens, we’ll be there.”

mritchie@cjournal.ca