Fighting the Fort McMurray wildfire becomes a family affair
As Dwight Flett battled flames in neighbourhoods around Fort McMurray during the 2016 wildfire, Miranda Flett was welcoming displaced residents into their home on the Fort McKay First Nation.
“We both have strong connections to Fort McMurray – we actually met while we were attending Father Mercredi High School,” Miranda explains. “So of course, we wanted to help. It was very painful to see what happened to our friends and neighbours so opening up our home seemed as natural as having Dwight go down with other volunteer firefighters from Fort McKay.”
A heavy-duty technician who joined Syncrude as an apprentice in 2010, Dwight spent three years with the fire brigade before joining a mine rescue team, receiving extensive training in both roles. “I was able to grow my medical skills and completed my EMR (Emergency Medical Responder certification) a month before the wildfires started,” he says.
Dwight also volunteers with Fort McKay’s fire department, so while he headed south towards the flames, thousands of evacuees headed north of which many were welcomed with open arms in Fort McKay and into the Flett household.
“We just started inviting people home. During the first couple of days, we had about 25 people, 10 dogs and a couple of lizards go through our house,” says Miranda.
Back in Fort McMurray, Dwight’s crew faced a fierce battle in Grayling Terrace but managed to help save the neighbourhood. “There were four houses on fire when we arrived but we managed to get that put out,” he says. “That was very important because they were worried about the fire spreading to downtown if we couldn’t stop it at Grayling.”
Dwight and Miranda take pride in how the entire region responded throughout the crisis. “We managed to come together as a region and open up our hearts and homes for each other,” Miranda says. “It showed the rest of the country what we are as people and as a community.”
Courage under fire
The phrase courage under fire rings a little truer these days for many in Syncrude’s Emergency Services department. The events of May 3rd, 2016, pushed the boundaries of what responders thought they were capable of and showcased a strength of character that surprised even them.
Armed with seven top-of-the-line firefighting vehicles such as pumper trucks, water tanker trucks and Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting vehicles (known as ARFFs), many Syncrude firefighters were dispatched throughout Fort McMurray neighbourhoods to work with the regional municipality’s fire department and those of other oil sands operators.
Syncrude fire specialist Ron Foy was one of many who didn’t hesitate at the chance to assist the city. “I grew up here. I’ve been here for 47 years. This is my home. I had to go,” he says.
The city was described by many as a “war zone” with propane tanks and vehicle tires exploding. The weather conditions were also impossible due to extreme high temperatures and strong winds, but the team pushed ahead and assisted with hundreds of other first responders.
“We were trying everything we could to stop the fire from progressing. We were putting people’s sprinklers on their balconies, decks, lawns – using whatever we could find to wet things down and prevent the gigantic pieces of flying embers from starting new fires,” says Syncrude fire specialist and EMT Peter Jenkins.
Part of Syncrude’s advantage was the ARFF vehicles, which hold up to 4,000 gallons of water, allowing the massive industrial units to move further away from water sources or go off-road if required. This provided team members alleyway access to cut off the flames.
Working with almost zero visibility at times due to smoke, firefighters had to be resourceful with their equipment. Syncrude Fire Lieutenant Kevin Graves recalls a situation when the ARFF truck was an asset while assisting another fire crew protecting a section of homes across from a greenbelt.
“The city Fire Captain came up to me afterwards and gave me a big hug. He thanked us and commented that we really helped to save the situation back there,” says Kevin.
Many Emergency Services members also recall the courage shown by 10 Syncrude heavy equipment operators, who were deployed into Fort McMurray to assist in taking down trees, pushing rubble and creating fire breaks.
These were the ultimate acts of bravery, in the face of danger and difficulties, where the human spirit triumphed. Indeed, for the men and women who helped to save Fort McMurray, nothing could be truer.