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All hands on deck

May 16, 2016

IT Network Analyst and Westlock volunteer firefighter Kris Olsen putting out hot spots near Fort McMurray.

AHS staff and volunteer firefighters assist with fire response

Story by Andrea Martin

WESTLOCK — When Stephen Walker got the call from Westlock’s Fire Chief to help with the fire response in Fort McMurray, he was on the road within hours.

“My day started out like any other—but as soon as I got the call, I knew I had to react,” says Walker, manager with HR Talent Management Strategies for Alberta Health Services (AHS,) supporting student placement and employment, and volunteer firefigher with the Town of Westlock. “When our crew was still an hour away from Fort McMurray, we could see giant plumes of smoke in the air.”

As his three-vehicle convoy from Westlock drove north on Highway 63, towards the massive wildfire, Walker felt an intense moment of anxiety.

“What struck me was the number of abandoned vehicles on the highway, and wondering where those people had gone,” he recalls.

Walker and his crew arrived at the first RCMP check-stop, on the fire perimeter, around 10 p.m., one day after Fort McMurray’s mandatory evacuation order was issued.

“As we approached the second RCMP checkpoint, we couldn’t see further than 30 feet in front of our vehicle,” explains Walker. “The fire was on the highway—that’s when we realized things were going to get worse, and that the heart of the fire was still ahead.”

Over the next five days, Westlock’s volunteer crew worked upwards of 20 hour shifts, responding to house and brush fires in Fort McMurray, as well as Gregoire Lake Estates and the town of Anzac.

“It was incredibly difficult work,” explains Walker. “In Gregoire Lake Estates, for instance, there are no fire hydrants, so we were pulling water from the lake, swimming pools and even hot tubs, to help hold the line.”

On the fire’s edge, near Anzac, the work was especially hard due to the heat and heavy smoke.

“All you could hear was fire crackling and bulldozers pushing down trees,” says Walker. “The heat was so intense that the dozers were overheating and first responders were even evacuated when conditions got too unsafe.”

“People have lost their houses, and everything that makes a place a home,” says Dan Lucyk, Director of Contracting, Procurement and Supply Management for AHS, North Zone, and volunteer firefighter. “As first responders, we help others in need and try – as much as possible – to reduce the impact.”

In Fort McMurray, volunteer firefighters worked alongside other firefighting crews from the City of Edmonton, Calgary, local oil sands operations, and teams from across the country. In Alberta, more than 80 per cent of firefighters are volunteers.

AHS IT Network Analyst and volunteer firefighter Kris Olsen, praises the teamwork and common purpose of all first responders in Fort McMurray. “Everyone was helpful and not afraid to lend a hand or share equipment or supplies.”

Since the Fort McMurray wildfire started, the Town of Westlock has sent seven volunteer firefighters to assist with the fire response.

“At times like this, you see the best in people,” says Walker. “Everyone has a role to play—this isn’t just Fort McMurray’s problem, we are all in this together.”