Red Deer County firefighters were among a large Central Alberta contingent that helped contain Alberta wildfires that threatened several communities.
Four of the 10 Red Deer County and two Penhold firefighters who raced up north nearly two weeks ago to tackle major wildfires in Brazeau and Yellowhead Counties are still there.
The county and nine other Central Alberta municipalities also sent 17 All-Hazards Incident Management Team to help co-ordinate the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes that led to the evacuation of thousands of residents in nearby communities. Other southern Alberta team members came from as far as Medicine Hat and Lethbridge to lend aid.
Red Deer County director of community and protective services Dave Brand was among incident management team members who headed north and recently returned. Eight were on the job at a time to help co-ordinate the wide range of resources that had been called in to fight the wildfires. City of Red Deer, Mountain View, Stettler, Kneehill and Clearwater Counties and industry provided personnel.
Firefighters from the province, municipalities and private contractors and Canadian Armed Forces engineers were all thrown into the battle and had to be tracked and accounted for and provided with everything they needed from equipment to a place to sleep. All had to be carefully documented so disaster recovery and cost recovery funds will make it back later to those who helped out.
The huge job of overseeing the firefighting response also involves keeping track of spontaneous firefighting efforts from residents, which while well-intentioned, can sometimes put them at risk.
“It’s really valuable to have people volunteering and people doing things on their own land. But at the same time if we don’t know where they are or what they’re doing sometimes they can get in the way.”
Being able to communicate with everyone on the front lines is especially important when the water tankers or water bucket-carrying helicopters are called in.
“Really tracking all those resources is really paramount from a safety perspective and an efficiency perspective.”
While they might not be in the bush hosing down hot spots like the frontline firefighters, the job requires a big commitment
“They are long and mentally exhausting days for the crews who do this,” he said. “It’s a lot of tracking and a lot of critical decision making occurs.
“That’s why these members on the incident management teams train for this.”
Throughout the year, firefighters and other municipal staff will train for specific emergency management roles so they can step in when needed. More than 50 personnel in the central region are trained and another 80 are working through the training.
For the firefighters, the job typically meant 14-hour days in one of the most hostile environments imaginable.
“It’s really hard, physical work and very dangerous work. Wildland firefighting is very different from grassland firefighting or structural firefighting, which is what most municipal fire departments are trained to do.”
For many paid on-call firefighters, such as those with the county, they are often taking time off work to help out. “Not only are they leaving their own jobs, they’re leaving their own communities and their own families and they’re going off to assist.”
Even the firefighters who remain must step to provide coverage for those missing.
Brand said the province has warned that it is gearing up for a long wildfire season, which has already started sooner than usual. Before the summer is out, Red Deer County and other central Alberta municipalities may get the call again.