What It’s Really Like to Be a Firefighter in Fort McMurray

In our 9–5 series, we ask women with amazing gigs what a day at work entails. This week, firefighter Suzanne Barry, who was part of the first crew to respond to the devastating fires in Fort McMurray, gives us a glimpse into her world

Ishani Nath

fort mcmurray firefightersAge: 26

Education: Completed the EMT program at Keyano College and fire school training (NFPA 1001 certification) from the Emergency Services Academy.

Length of time at current gig: I’ve been an EMT for six years and a firefighter for four. The department in Fort McMurray does both ambulance and fire services. I’ve lived here since I was seven and I couldn’t picture working anywhere else.

What drew you into the field? I did a year of a bachelor of education at university. I wasn’t really enjoying any of the courses I was taking so I moved back to Fort McMurray and started working at Home Hardware. The job required me to be certified in first aid, and I found it really interesting so it kind of cycled from there. I wanted to do something where I could make a difference, help people, and just feel like I was doing a fulfilling career. I’ve never met a single firefighter who said they didn’t like their job.

Firefighting is typically seen as a boys’ club. What has your experience been? Fort McMurray is pretty unique. We have 10 or 11 females on our department out of around 170 people. Honestly the vibe you get from most people is that they don’t care if you’re male or female, if you can do the job, then that’s all that matters.

fort mcmurray firefighters

What is a typical workday like for you? Basically we show up everyday and relieve the guys who have been working all night. We have lots of chores around the hall that we have to do, like checking the trucks and keeping things clean, and we usually all eat together. But if the tones go off, we drop everything.

How do you get yourself in the zone before heading out to fight a fire? I know I’m not going to be able to make a difference if I’m panicking. So, I just stay calm and know that I know what I’m doing and that I trust all the guys around me so we’re going to get the job done.

What types of fires do you typically fight? Mainly we are structure firefighters, like houses and buildings, but we all also have our wildlife certification, so if there’s some kind of bush fire inside the city limits, we will handle that.

Having done so many calls over the years, is there one that you’ll always remember? This experience right now. There are people who have probably done their whole career and never had an emergency on this scale.

fort mcmurray firefighters

What was it like being on the frontlines of this fire? The first few days were non-stop. We only had our fire department and our volunteer rural department, so maybe around 250 people total, to try and stop the fire. It was 30 degrees. It hadn’t rained in days. We were out fighting forest fires, but the flames got out of control because it got so windy, it started lighting houses up all around us. We basically had to try and stop it where we could. It was crazy. You’d put out a house fire, feel awesome about saving some houses, and then hear on the radio that houses are lighting up two blocks over because the wind carried embers over there. It felt like it was never going to end.

What was the vibe like in Fort McMurray during the forest fire? For us on the fire department, it was just a sense of: we need to keep pushing and keep going. Everyone was motivated and working towards the same goal to protect our community.

How was fighting this fire different compare to other forest fires you’ve tackled in the past? The sheer magnitude of it all. Our entire town is surrounded by the boreal forest, and we were completely surrounded by fire. It was basically four days straight of fighting fires, all day everyday. We’re usually tired after one house fire, and just my crew alone fought probably 20 or 30 house fires with forest fires in between that. It was just non-stop.

fort mcmurray firefighters

Pulling such crazy hours and fighting such a massive forest fire, how did you keep going? Every house to us means something. We know that it’s somebody’s memories and somebody’s lives in that home. If we can even stop the fire from getting to one of the houses on the street, that’s a small victory in itself.

Was there one experience from the past few days that really stuck out to you? When this first started, we were trying to prevent the fire from coming over towards the houses, so we were stationed in an area that is mostly trees but meets up with houses eventually. We were working that for a few hours and we thought we were getting a good handle on it, but all of a sudden, the winds shifted and started going towards the houses. We deployed some lines on that street to try and protect the houses, but as we were doing that, our captain came on the radio saying: “Drop everything where you are, we’re getting out of here. You’re not going to be able to handle this, there’s houses lighting up behind you.” We tried to grab as much hosing equipment as we could and kept moving to another area where there were more houses on the tree line, but the hydrant connection was broken so we weren’t getting enough water. Basically everything that could go wrong; was going wrong. Eventually the fire was just coming; it was blowing right in our faces. I was standing in the street, looking towards my pump truck and all of the smoke completely surrounded my entire crew. I remember wondering, “At what point do we start thinking about ourselves instead of these homes?” It was like God heard me, because at that moment the wind stopped for a couple minutes, the pump and my crew came back into view, and we were able to take a stand and save a bunch of houses on that street.

fort mcmurray firefighters

Since you also live in Fort McMurray, did your family have to evacuate? My husband had to evacuate from our home. He went north of Fort McMurray to the oil fields, but when the fire started moving there, he flew down to Edmonton and he’s been there ever since. I’ve been here since day one. Fortunately the Best Western here has offered us a hotel so all of our fire department is staying there.

Since your husband packed your bags, what did you ask him to take with him? The main thing I told him to grab was my engagement ring and my wedding band. I said, “As long as you have that and my passport, we can replace anything else.”

Is your house safe? Yes, which is very fortunate because there are about 20 guys in my department that weren’t that lucky. They all lost their homes.

What will you take away from this experience? Everyone talks about the brotherhood/sisterhood of the fire department, and I understood what it meant but I never truly felt it—but after this I do. We’ve been through some things together that no one else will understand. These guys are my family.

You recently had your first day off since this all began. How did you unwind after everything you’ve been through? I got to sleep in; it was awesome. It was also the first day we were able to have a hot shower, so that felt really luxurious.

There’s been a ton of coverage of Fort McMurray, but what do you think that people at home might be missing when they see this story on TV versus seeing it in real life? I hope that people can see past the destruction and see the good things that we were able to save. Our town is still here. We saved most of the crucial infrastructure, like the college and the grocery stores and things that are going to be needed to get this town up and running again. So even though I know people are suffering their own losses, I hope that they can see the positives too.

fort mcmurray firefighters

 

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