Red Deer Fire Chief Ken McMullen helped maintain everyday emergency services in the High Level region while municipal firefighters from the northern community were evacuated because of wildfire.
McMullen was among three Red Deer Emergency Services members who volunteered to temporarily fill in after firefighter-paramedics were forced to lock up their own homes and flee along with other High Level residents.
Before returning to Red Deer earlier this month, McMullen spent 12 days living out of a hotel in what was largely a ghost town.
With him were two other local members of the Canadian Task Force 2 team — training officer Dave Bain and emergency incident management team member Karen Mann.
“We were there to bolster resources,” said McMullen, since many Mackenzie County residents who lived further away from the wildfire remained in their homes — unlike the residents of High Level, the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement and four other centres who were evacuated.
McMullen’s job was to oversee law enforcement and traffic — as well as ensure there were still ambulances and firefighter-paramedics to deal with heart attacks, kitchen fires or other everyday emergencies that might arise in Mackenzie County.
While he wasn’t overly familiar with northern Alberta’s highways or communities, McMullen had to quickly get the lay of the land amid a lot of dry, burning forest.
The fire chief saw smoke and fire on a daily basis: “Late at night, you would see a glow.”
Yet he said air quality in High Level was quite good, since the wind was blowing all the smoke southward toward Edmonton and central Alberta.
McMullen said three other Red Deer EMS members were also in High Level providing peer support to people fighting the blaze: “They were making sure they had food and water, that they were taking their breaks, and that they had somebody to talk to…”
Besides the dangers that come with fighting a forest fire, McMullen said there’s also high anxiety. Most of the firefighters live in that area, so they were worried about the safety of their own families and homes while on the job.
Some might have even lost their homes, since 12 houses were destroyed on the Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement.
“It’s stressful. Anytime you lose a house, firefighters take that personally,” said McMullen, who had the importance reinforced of good co-ordination between police and fire services during his time in High Level.
While Red Deer is unlikely to be threatened by wildfire, he noted there are tree belts in the river valley that could burn. City residents could also be evacuated because of floods, hazardous spills or for many other reasons.
The fire chief, who also helped during the Fort McMurray and Slave Lake wildfires, said “You’re always learning from these experiences.”