Red Deer firefighter Sheldon Christensen has battled his share of fires in his 27 years on the job.
Christensen witnessed devastation at the Pine Lake tornado in July 2000, which injured hundreds and killed 12 people.
But nothing prepared him for the magnitude of “the Beast” that swept through Fort McMurray two weeks ago.
“It was all day,” said Christensen, who is an assistant platoon chief with Red Deer Emergency Services. “Fires all around us and rotating. You would see one rage up and it would be knocked down. Then there would be another one over there … It kept lighting up in different spots and changing direction. … We were just surrounded all the time.”
The first of three 10-person crews of Red Deer Emergency Services firefighters recently returned to Red Deer after battling the wildfires for close to a week. The second crew returned to Red Deer late on Friday before being replaced by a third crew.
“It was horrible that this happened but it is only possessions,” he said. “They got 88,000 people out of that place with two fatalities on the highway, which was terrible in itself. Overall we didn’t lose many more houses after that. We kept everybody safe. By the time we got there, most of the damage was done. We were just trying to give the Fort McMurray guys a break. They wouldn’t take one though.”
Red Deer has also had staff working in the call centre, Emergency Social Services personnel, water treatment plant operators, critical incident stress management personnel, police officers and public information officers working in Fort McMurray.
Christensen was in charge of the first fire crew, which took up the wildland firefighting equipment, including a Polaris UTV, a side-by-side all terrain vehicle and a command unit on May 4.
The crew left around 2:30 p.m. on that day and arrived in Fort McMurray around 10 p.m. and went straight to the staging area.
“Everyone was just raring to go,” said Christensen. “It was a bit hectic there as you can imagine. There’s really no way to be prepared for that situation. They were doing the best they could and it was a little chaotic. Everybody was showing up at the same time and g0t to work.”
The crew set up camp using the command unit as its home base to sleep and eat for their stay in Fort McMurray. A few hours later, the crew was assigned to douse brush fires in Confederation Hill.
“There were townhouses on fire and the wind was blowing like crazy,” said Christensen. “It was nothing like I had seen before as far as fires go … We held our own pretty well for awhile. Then it got going pretty good. We ended up being there with four or five other brush trucks. We pretty much fought that fire for the entire day until 2 p.m. before we finally got it under control.”
Christensen said the crew was there for 12 hours so they had been up for 23 hours at that time. He knew they could not continue to work 20 hours a day and continue to fight because it didn’t look like it was going to end anytime soon.
They split into two groups of five in six hour shifts. Many of the houses backed onto the forest so they spent most days putting out the brush fires to prevent it from reaching to the houses.
The trucks ran for 20 hours a day. The crews were also sent to work in Anzac.
“It was amazing to see my guys in action,” said Christensen. “Just how driven they were. They were an unstoppable force. My responsibility was to hold them back. It took effort. They just wanted to work. Even after 48 hours and only having four to six hours of sleep. They were mad when they switched them out and mad when I took them away.”
He said the support crew of mechanics and other staff in Red Deer made their work possible.
But Christensen said they were just happy they were in this fight and helping out their fellow Fort McMurray firefighters.
“We didn’t do anything during the Slave Lake (wildfires in 2011),” said Christensen. “It was really frustrating for us. We’re like ‘come on.’ Kelowna the same thing. We didn’t send anybody.”
There will be lessons learned that they will be able to use in future campaigns, including bringing spare tires and proper equipment. Christensen said they now have a better idea of what type of equipment and supplies are necessary in similar situations.