Central Alberta volunteer firefighters have roamed far from home to battle some of the biggest wildfires in B.C. and Alberta in recent years.
This spring, dozens of firefighters from Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Service, the city and county of Lacombe, and the Town of Sylvan Lake have rotated through the massive forest fire that has been burning for weeks in High Level in northern Alberta.
Last week, Clearwater Regional Fire learned it was one of two municipal fire departments — along with the Town of High Level — selected to build a special team to lead the attack against major forest fires.
Known officially as Wildland Urban Interface protection teams, the four-firefighter units will receive additional training — theoretical and hands on — over 18 months through a $580,000 grant from the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association.
Clearwater Regional Fire Chief Steve Debienne said being chosen to form one of the teams is an honour and a reflection of the extensive experience central Alberta firefighters have with protecting homes and businesses.
In the High Level wildfires alone, 70 volunteers from central Alberta left their homes and day jobs to lend a hand up north.
Fine-tuning tactics and ways to marshal resources has been a provincial focus for several years in the wake of a number of major fires.
“If you take a look back over the last number of years, you’ve got Slave Lake that kicked it off with their big fire, followed by Fort McMurray, not far behind that. Then Waterton and now High Level,” said Debienne.
“Our crews are utilized on a lot of these deployments, so we put in our application, and last week, we got confirmation that we were one of the two successful communities to receive the grant to go forward with this.”
Debienne said to ensure that enough firefighters are available locally, four municipalities and their almost 200 firefighters have taken turns being deployed to the various fires.
“It truly is an honour to be working with these men and women. They’re true professionals who take their jobs seriously and are willing to help their brothers and sisters out no matter whether it’s in B.C., or whether it’s in High Level.
“The way these folks have risen to the occasion and performed at a very high level is showcased by this.”
The contract allows four people, including a team lead, to become full-time firefighters based out of a headquarters. They will be called into action to lead the response against wildfires.
It is hoped the teams will be up and running by Aug. 1.
While it’s starting as an 18-month trial project, the hope is it will be funded permanently when it proves its worth.
Responding to wildfires outside a volunteer fire department’s jurisdiction is part of the increasing scope of their roles.
Once, volunteer firefighters only tackled fires in their areas. Then, responding to motor vehicle collisions was added, along with hazardous material calls and technical rescue.
“It’s a bit of a shift within the service. But you know what, I think both us and High Level have risen to the occasion and turned this program into something that is viable and, hopefully, sustainable into the future.”
Clearwater has about 90 volunteer firefighters. The city and county of Lacombe and Sylvan Lake add roughly the same number.