It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and the thoughts on many people’s minds were focused on how to help the victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires, when suddenly there was bellowing smoke in the sky in our neck of the woods.
The wildfire began around 1:00 pm, May 15, near the Iosegun Lake, 400 metres from the Trilogy Energy gas plant and 11 kms northwest from the Town of Fox Creek.
It was classified as the WWF-025 fire and later named, the Iosegun Lake fire. It first began burning the size of 3.5 hectares and quickly grew to 800 hectares. See related story: How Big Is A Hectare? A Better Way to Visualize The Size and the most recent story on the wildfire status story here: Iosegun Lake Wildfire – Under Control.
Thirty-eight firefighters, eight helicopters, 15 air tankers and various heavy equipment were immediately on scene battling the blaze. More resources and man power were added within days to get the fire under control and at one point, there were 86 fire personnel on the ground.
The same day, around 8:30 pm a mandatory evacuation order and state of local emergency was issued by the M.D of Greenview #16 to Little Smoky south area residents affecting approximately 50 families. Thirty seven of those came to Fox Creek during the evocation process. They were allowed back home the morning of May 17.
The Town of Fox Creek issued their Emergency Operations Centre on May 17 and it was shut down on May 19. See related post: Town of Fox Creek activated their Emergency Operations Center
The wildfire forced the Trilogy Energy plant to shut in their facility and evacuate all personnel.
John Williams, President and COO from Trilogy Energy explained 20-25 staff jobs were affected by the threat of the wildfire and all safety precautions were made.
“There was lots of smoke, the air quality was poor, ashes and embers were falling,” said Williams. “The plant would have been truly in jeopardy had the winds shifted directions or conditions worsened.”
He would like to extend this appreciation to the support of the Alberta Wildfire Crews and all the resources used to fight the blaze. They are very grateful for the quick action of all of those involved to stop the fire from spreading towards the plant.
“It was extremely close to us, we don’t know yet how the fire was started; the power was shut down to the plant first, when staff recognized the fire started,” explained Williams.
See related post: Trilogy extends their Appreciation
Brent Cunningham from Grande Cache was one of the many wildfire crew units’ on the ground fighting the fire. “It’s been really busy, but we are watching each others back,” said Cunningham.
He then joked he was getting too old for this.
Clifford McDonald, another firefighter from the Grande Cache said the “The forest can be a real challenge.”
On May 17, there was a transition, from the Fox Creek fire base to the Iosegun Camp base, staging area for the crew units from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
Joan Simonton, Wildfire Information Officer from Edson explained there was a lot of reassurance with the number of personnel and aircraft fighting the fire.
Unit crews were transported from Whitecourt and additional resources brought in from Grande Cache and many surrounding areas. Many of the unit crews were fighting the blaze on the southeast part of the fire.
There were hoses lining the edge of the road and heavy equipment, water tankers and helicopters present.
The air crafts were accessing water from Iosegun Lake and Raspberry Lake, later having to collect water from Giroux Lake due to the risk of public safety at Iosegun from too many spectators.
An emergency policing unit was set up on the North Road, limiting access to the area for public safety.
Wildfire crew leader Rob Philips was one of the many firefighters on scene since the beginning of the fire.
“At first, I thought we had a shot at catching it and quickly realized we need more resources,” he said.
Philips, entering his eighth season as a wildfire crew, further explained a typical day starts at 7 am – 7 pm, 15 days on and 6 days off. He “loves” his career.
The crews are split up into teams and each has objectives to achieve.
“It is an extreme job, we are all well trained and we are working really hard,” he added.
An average wildfire crew usually fights 40 fires a season (March – October) and this year, the crew fighting the Iosegun Lake fire were already on #27.
“There is a unique camaraderie and a trust between crews,” said Philips, “We’ve got each others backs.”
There are not only wildfire crews on scene, but many other people involved around the clock, helping to control the fire and many others on stand by, waiting to be called into action if need be.
The bulldozer crews were instrumental in containing the fire as they secured the perimeter. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry have a seasonal contract with many local companies in preparation of a wildfire.
From the view of one the bulldozers on scene, a local young man, Jeremy Gallant, employed with Kodiak Oilfield Services, provided this insight on his experience:
“We went to the Fox Creek Fire Base on Sunday, May 15th and remained on standby all day until 8 pm. We all met again at the Fire Base the next day and had our daily briefing at 11:00 am when we came on shift. Our Dozer Boss told us that burning conditions for that day were considered extreme and to be ready to roll in case the siren sounded.
It was 1:10 pm when the siren went off and the ground crew jumped in their trucks and took off.
We all were close behind with our equipment ready to head in.
We arrived at the scene around 1:45 pm. We unloaded our equipment at a nearby lease where we we’re going to be deployed. At this time I counted 12 water bombers and two fire retardant air tankers working on the blaze.
We remained on standby until 8:00 pm when we were assigned a field dozer boss and had our briefing around 8:30-9:00 pm. We were then deployed to head in and start to build a fire guard so that the fire couldn’t jump to undisturbed forest.
The first day I went out we started our day at 11:00 am and I was released the next day at 11:00 am to go home and get some rest. At 7:00 pm we were to he back on location to take over the night shift once the water bombers completed their day. We worked all through the night until 11am. All together it was 5 days and 57 hours building fire guard.
This was the first time I have ever been on the fire line and it was an experience I will always remember. Knowing that one community could be in jeopardy of losing everything they have and the chances that if winds shift it could head right for a gas plant and possibly our town.
There were a lot of men and women out there doing a part in containing this and it’s really amazing how all these people worked together and we were able to contain the fire.
The first night I went in we had trees burning all around us so it was “put your blade down and start pushing” so that it wouldn’t spread. We we’re released on the 19th at 4 pm.
Our head dozer boss Keith Mitchell told us after his meeting with the higher ups that they have never seen a dozer and ground crew work so effectively with each other.
Everyone out there had a great attitude and we we’re out there to do a job and we got it done safely.
The rain and snow were definitely a huge help to ensure all hot spots are extinguished. It was an intense five days but I was really glad to be a part of this with a great group of people who came together and give it 100%.” – Jeremy Gallant.
The Town of Fox Creek Emergency Operations Center directors, John Greathead (Director of Operations) and Josh Towle (Community Bylaw Officer) provided their insights on the wildfire close to town.
“It was a fear of the unknown for so many – the fire was small and quickly grew,” said Mr. Greathead.
He explained, four additional fire departments were ready to respond, in addition to our 30 member fire and rescue team and 20+ RCMP Officers. The fire was moving an estimated one km per hour and they were confident there was 8-11 hours time notice if the winds shifted south towards town.
“We never felt a sense of urgency or a sense of panic,” said Mr. Greathead.
Both gentlemen are new to town (within the year) and the experience was new to them. They were working with so many others, MD. AB Foresty, CAO, CRC staff, FCFD, AHS, ATCO, local grocery store, hotels and many others. Local businesses were described as being phenomenal – from donated food, accommodations and supplies.
“There was amazing support – needs were identified for those with animals and people without transportation when the information alert was activated. We were planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Everything else stopped during this time, our focus and sole role was keeping the town safe. There were many outside resources,” explained Mr. Greathead.
He added, “We were told we were in good hands and felt we were in good hands. Meetings were held twice a day. They learned that in the future they need to keen up on the briefing times, updates and notifying the public.
We really worked hard and went over every scenario; this way or that way, if the winds did change. We were prepared. There are always other things to jeopardize the community’s safety; sour gas, an accident on the highway, etc.”
Print This Post
“All the support was very reassuring. It brought community out in our community” said Mr. Towle.
“Mutually counting on each other, watching each other’s backs, forcing each other to be brave.” – Suzanne Collins