When three people drowned at Crescent Falls last summer, emergency workers had to spend over an hour driving to the scene from Rocky Mountain House.
Concern about future wilderness accidents, car crashes on remote stretches of Hwy 11 and wildfires, are prompting some Nordegg residents to call for better fire protection for their community and region.
The remote hamlet, an hour west of Rocky, no longer has an effective volunteer emergency team to respond to “wildland fire, structure fire, MVAs, toxic spills, power-line breaks and recreational accidents,” said Jane Drummond in a 2019 letter she wrote to the former municipal affairs minister.
The situation hasn’t improved in the last couple of years, said Drummond. As a former Nordegg firefighter, she worries about what could happen during a hot, dry summer, when wildfire risk is high and hundreds of people are climbing, hiking, fishing and sight-seeing in often perilous terrain.
It can be a two-hour drive from Rocky to many tourist areas in the West Country, Drummond noted.
This winter, tourists are walking on frozen Abraham lake to see gas bubbles in the ice. These can de-stabilize the lake’s frozen surface and cause people to fall in, she added.
According to Christine Heggart, Clearwater County’s director of emergency and legislative services, there are nine people living full- or part-time in Nordegg who are trained for emergency firefighting response.
Although having 15 firefighters in Nordegg would be optimal, Heggart believes there is an adequate number of local firefighters to deliver paid-on-call service as a team of four.
But Drummond, a retired University of Alberta nursing instructor living in Nordegg doesn’t believe these numbers tell the full story.
Only three out of those nine paid-on-call firefighters live in the community full-time, she said — and one of those three works outside of the community so is not available during work hours.
That leaves only two people who can respond quickly to local fire calls, Drummond maintains.
She left the local fire team in 2019 after the resignations/dismissals of five team leaders. She said no one interested in filling the top firefighting positions and few people were willing to volunteer with the team at all.
The problem stems from fundamental differences between the Nordegg firefighting volunteers and the municipality’s centralized fire service — Clearwater County Regional Fire Rescue Service, which serves Rocky, Caroline and Nordegg.
Drummond believes the CCRFRS’s “top-down, para-military”-style leadership was not a good fit with Nordegg’s older volunteer firefighting base.
Many conflicts arose, she explained — such as the kind of training needed for Nordegg volunteers.
The CCRFRS wanted to focus on house fires, even though they are relatively rare in the small, community, Drummond said, while Nordegg volunteers wanted more training in water rescues, dealing with wilderness falls, responding to vehicle crashes, and dealing with wildfires.
She believes Nordegg’s firefighting volunteers did not feel heard and lost faith in the regional organization.
Scott Sheldrake said he had served as a Nordegg firefighting lieutenant for 10 years before being told by the CCRFRS he could no longer volunteer because he has a beard. “They said I couldn’t even drive the water truck,” recalled Sheldrake — yet he was later called in by the CCRFRS to deal with a garbage fire and a body recovery.
“It seems I was good enough for that…”
Clearwater County chief administrative officer Rick Emmons said the CCRFRS is only enforcing rules under the firefighters code. The goal is ensuring the safety of volunteers while protecting the county from lawsuits, said Emmons.
For instance, beards can’t be worn by firefighters because they break the seal on breathing apparatus that would otherwise prevent smoke inhalation, said Emmons.
Other than paying for a fire chief position with the CCRFRS, Emmons said the county does not guarantee firefighting services to smaller communities, which must rely on local volunteers.
Since Nordegg is unique, as its population is 90 per cent seasonal, Emmons said recruitment drives were held to augment the local firefighting effort.
Sheldrake feels more trained firefighters living full-time in the community are needed to provide an effective firefighting response. He noted a couple of recent stove and chimney blazes in the community had to be handled by homeowners because there wasn’t a firefighting team available.
He wants Clearwater County to come up with plans to re-establish effective firefighting services in Nordegg.
“It’s scary… I fear having my family drive out here because (if they crash) there is no Nordegg emergency response.”