Firefighters help out in St. Mary’s

Golden firefighters have just returned from a trip to St. Mary’s to fight the forest fire raging near Kimberley in an evacuation zone.

Rob Perry and Jay LaRoy joined Invermere firefighters Billy Robideau and Erik McLaughlin to protect homes near the Meachen Creek blaze by setting up sprinkler systems and lending a hand in any way possible.

All four firefighters returned to their hometowns due to a shortness of staff, but their job was everything except boring while they were away.

Each day began with an early wakeup, A&W for breakfast, a meeting at 7:30 a.m., and a 12-hour work day beginning at 8 a.m. The week-long job had them assessing the houses in the area, setting up bladders filled with water to protect homes, and performing maintenance on equipment.

“We were originally supposed to actually fight the fire, but since there’s so little resources right now in the province, they’re struggling to find firefighters to help with the structural protection unit (SPU),” LaRoy said. “We went down there, assessed all the properties… There are 65 properties on St. Mary’s Lake Road, and did assessment for the first day, and then the second day we had an SPU crew come in, so we set up sprinklers on some of the houses that were closer to the fire.”

The firefighters took a the fire engine to St. Mary’s as a type-one engine, consisting of four firefighters, a certain amount of hose length, and specific capabilities within the truck to put out fires.

Originally, the duo from Golden was supposed to attend the fire in Burns Lake, but the Office of the Fire Commissioner found out that they were closer to Kimberley, and sent them there.

“So he sent us down there, and we were the very first resource on that fire,” LaRoy said.

The Golden Fire Department has a similar trailer set up that is used to protect structures in the event of a fire, which resides at the department in town.

“We have our trailer sitting out in the yard for the surrounding area. It goes out to Nicholson, to Revelstoke if needed,” LaRoy said. “Now we have the knowledge. We’ve never actually had to set one of those up, so we’re trained for that. There were a lot of little things that were learned along the process.”

Although LaRoy and Perry didn’t attack the fire itself, the crew at the Golden Fire Department is trained on how to protect structures and put out hot spots if needed. During their stay in St. Mary’s, the crew was prepared in case wind direction changed, and the fire blew over into the residential areas.

“In our down time, we set up safety zones, like worst case scenario, what do we do? So there was training out there,” Perry said.

The Golden Fire Department is trained in structural protection, but LaRoy hopes the fire department will be able to set up the unit and learn in a hands-on way to protect homes and set up sprinklers.

“We learned a lot. It’s one thing taking a course, but actually going out there and doing it, you get to see how it’s actually done,” LaRoy said.

Fighting fires in St. Mary’s and protecting structures differed substantially from what the firefighters are used to in Golden.

“It’s a lot different from structure firefighting to forestry. It sounds like it would be kind of similar, but it’s way different radio talk and how everything is done is completely different,” LaRoy said.

In addition to firefighting duties, the crew had to be ready to evacuate the remaining residents who decided not to leave after the evacuation order was issued.

The people who remained are varied. Some of them are farmers, some of them are families that are not too close to the fire, but are still in the zone.

“There’s a few people that stayed in the evacuation zone. They didn’t want to leave their property, so we had to be prepared to do drive by rescues of them if the fire blew over,” Perry said.

One of the farmers, who had dozens of cattle and chickens, sent his wife and two children away when the evacuation was ordered, but decided to stay to protect his home and livestock. He was equipped with his own fire hose, pump, and heavy equipment to fight the blaze if needed.

“He was ready to fight it himself,” Perry said.

Another couple who lived in the area weren’t immediately affected by the fire, and lived a good enough distance away. They were prepared to evacuate onto the lake via boat if the fire got too close.

“It’s their choice. We can’t do anything. We can’t tell you to get out,” LaRoy said. “It was quite eerie, we had a few days where the wind picked up quite a bit. They were warning us to be ready. Luckily, the wind was in our favour most of the days.”

While they stayed in the area, Perry said they were treated like royalty, and every time they drove the fire truck through the town it was like a “one-truck parade,” with people outside waving as they went by.

“Everyone was so thankful,” LaRoy said. “They were going out of their way, thanking you.”

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