Beau Michaud wearing his other fire-fighting hat. The Parks Canada Initial Attack team members is also a volunteer with the Jasper Fire Brigade. // Bob Covey
Fort Mac fire seared lasting impression on local crew
Two months after the Fort McMurray wildfire forced the evacuation of the city’s 85,000 residents, Jasper National Park staff who were called into help fight the flames are still astonished by what they saw.
Beau Michaud is Parks Canada’s initial attack fire crew leader. He, along with Jasper’s three other initial attack members—Sean Buckle, Dane Olinkin and Clay Prail, as well as strike leader Brett Haug—joined a 20-person sustained action firefighting crew comprised of Parks Canada staff. Although Michaud has been on some large fires all over the country, nothing he’s seen in his career compared to what he witnessed in Northern Alberta this spring.
“It was by far the biggest operation I’ve ever seen,” Michaud said. “The briefing package we receive is usually one page. In this case, we got a book.”
Everything scaled out from there: Michaud said when the crew arrived at the massive Incident Command Point (ICP) outside of town, there were hundreds of bulldozers on the ground, dozens of helicopters flying back and forth and thousands of firefighters being distributed to various spots along the 600,000 hectare fire (for reference, the Excelsior/Maligne Valley fire that burned in Jasper National Park last summer was 1,000 ha).
“It was a giant, buzzing beehive,” he said.
But even before the group got to the ICP they were shocked at what they saw. The mood was eerie, too, Michaud said, not only because entire blocks were burned out, but because residents had not yet been allowed back into town. Firefighters and other emergency officials were required to flash a bracelet and use a code word to get through security checkpoints. Authorities were on high alert for looters and for people who hadn’t evacuated and were instead hiding out in the abandoned communities.
“There were police on every corner,” Michaud said. “It was like you’d imagine a zombie apocalypse.”
After the Jasper IA crew got their marching orders, they, along with the rest of their 20-pack, moved out to the airport where Alberta ESRD had set up a base. Pumpers, hoses, hand tools and other firefighting equipment were laid out in familiar fashion, again, except for the scale. Every kind of helicopter the crew had ever seen alternatively flew in and out of the base, and although poor weather meant they were grounded on that day, a fleet of firefighting aircraft indicated that nearly every air tanker in Western Canada had been rounded up to join the cause.
The surreal imagery didn’t stop there. Besides the burnt out buildings and abandoned cars, entire parking lots were peppered with spruce needles, suggesting the power of the wind and the fury of the fire. And after the crew got to their staging area, they got a glimpse at how efficient the operation’s facility protection strategy had been: officials demolished some homes to save entire neighbourhoods.
“That fire must have been going flat out,” Michaud said. “You could see where they caught it just in the nick of time.”
As the Jasper crew’s assignment unfolded, the hot, dry weather started to break. Eventually the skies poured down, depositing more rain in half an hour than Michaud thought possible, while other parts of the massive fire didn’t see a drop.
Although rain puts out low-intensity fire, it doesn’t completely extinguish ground fire. As such, Michaud’s unit searched for hot spots created after two weeks of solid burning. The task was monotonous, interminable and extremely soggy. But their directive was to put the fire out completely, and as such, they spent 12 days walking through the boreal forest, searching for fire in high spots, squirrel middens and spruce trees. Everywhere else they stepped was bog.
“My feet were wet from the day we started until the day we left,” he recalled.
After two weeks, when they finally did head home, Michaud said three things stuck with him from his experience in Fort McMurray: the incredible fact that, considering the destruction he witnessed, no one was hurt; the wealth of firefighting resources available in Alberta; and the idea that this could happen in his community.
As a firefighter, Jasper’s vulnerability to wildfire has always occurred to Michaud, but what he saw convinced him to spread the word: always be prepared for the worst.
“This could happen in any forest community,” he said. “And if it does I won’t be waiting for anyone to tell us to leave.”