Fire Season 2003 - Part Two

...continued from Fire Season 2003: Part One.

Shortly after our arrival in Kelowna the fire decided to behave itself and move in a more favorable direction, away from town. At night the contrasting ridge line of the mountains backlit by acres of fire made for some overwhelming memories. Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me to capture any of the events, but there were plenty of people who did. These can be found pretty much anywhere on the internet in a matter of moments. Type in “Kelowna Wildfires” and hit “images” on your favourite browser. It was truly shocking. Seeing the huge pile of orange light glowing across the sky, my first thought was extreme heat. It must be ridiculously hot on the front line! But that is exactly where I wanted to be. Occasionally spouts of fire would flare skyward as it raced up to the crown of a newly acquired tree. As far as you could see on the horizon, it was burning, and I really wanted to get on to the front line. Shovel, axe, backpack, sturdy boots. Lots of drinking water. The stuff my dreams are made of! My mind raced with the thought of standing on the line, fighting fire, working with a team of firefighters to fight the good fight. The smell of smoke thick in the air. Tired and bleeding at the end of the day.

But that was not our destiny. No, ours was much more tame, and we were probably better off truth be told. Listening to stories from firefighters returning from the front line captured both my attention and imagination. I remember one story of an engine crew that was caught in a firestorm as it raced up the side of a hill completely enveloping the truck, with the crew inside. In a ball of fire hot enough to instantly peel the paint from your truck, is not really where anybody wants to find themselves. With only enough time to hide, the fire crew survived a savage attack from nature. A testament to the build quality of those rigs. Fire is an untamed, natural element, that can change direction and move so fast one cannot help but believe it has a mind of its own, and it is always hungry. Fire and its behaviour fascinates me to my core so when I get the chance to learn more about it, I do for this very reason.

Because we had been stood down until the following day, we decided to hit the showers, get some dinner, talk about the following day and make a plan. The best way to do this in our opinion, was to kick back with a beer, a burger, and relax. I honestly looked forward to it, and so did the others. As we were leaving the hotel, a van full of firefighters returning from town, pulled up directly in front of us. Most of the content in this van, was not fit for service of any kind. These folks were on much needed time off and they were blowing off steam by making use of the city organized shuttle buses that left every hotel in Kelowna, every fifteen minutes, day and night for weeks on end, moving firefighters to and from the #1 fall hall in the centre of town. Not more than a few blocks stumbling distance to the core of the nightclubs and restaurants of Kelowna. Just as we were about to enter the van and gain a few more new experiences, the panicked sounds of a young person yelling “Bucket!” over and over, stopped us in our tracks. Fascinated, we missed the bus. And then the next one. “Bucket!”- “Bucket!” This went on until one of the Kelowna ladder trucks pulled into the driveway, and the young child yelling “Bucket” ran around behind the hotel and disappeared.

Naturally, this made me very curious. So, I watched a little longer. I waited for the little girl to come back and commence yelling “Bucket!”, but she did not show. Wringing my hands, and raising my eye brows as the plot thickened I looked back to the ladder truck that had just pulled in.

The officer in charge of the truck hopped out with his driver and looked around, a little worried toward the roof. They looked around a little more, discussing something. This is kind of disappointing I thought. I looked for the little girl again, and then back to the truck. Looked for the little girl again, and back to the truck. Then it dawned on me. Maybe the little girl was yelling for, a bucket because the hotel was on fire! That's why a ladder truck and its crew is currently parked in front of me. SHIT!

Just as the thought hit me square in the frontal lobe, my heart skipped a beat, my adrenal glands kicked in and with excitement, I was shaking like a leaf. Is the hotel on fire?! Just as I was getting good and ramped up, the little girl came running around the corner straight to the firetruck. Here we go I thought! Nothing. They stood talking to each other in a perfectly, calm, boring, manner. This really, played out differently in my mind. A little deflated, I walked over to see what was going on. As it turns out, one of the displaced families who lost their home to the “belt of fire”, was staying in this very hotel. This fine family had a Parrot, named “Bucket”. It had flown away, and the ladder truck was here to help get it off the roof! Mark, Troy, and I all looked at each other and laughed. A great stress relief. Minds at ease, we carried on to enjoy the night. With our somewhat tame day behind us, this was exactly what we needed. A good laugh.

The next morning at breakfast, Captain Bill treated the crew. So we ordered big. Bill shook his head knowing full well that he really should be more careful with what he says to us, or in one way or the another, he will pay. Coffee, Orange juice, milk, bacon, eggs, toast, hash-brown's, and pancakes complete, we headed for the firehall to check in. With Bill's wallet a little lighter, we were being sent out to an interface zone where the city meets the forest. Our job was to inspect buildings and property for any signs of recent fire activity, and make the neighbourhoods secure. Meaning, drive around, and remove all combustibles/explosive material such as propane tanks, from the property and move them onto the street so fire crews will know what dangers are close, and to make it less likely of catching fire should the fire storm change direction as predicted, and run straight across Kelowna.

However, before any of our plans could take place, we needed to fill our truck with water. So we found the closest hydrant to our patrol zone, and set the plan in motion. I jumped out, pulled a line from the truck, brought it to Mark waiting for me at the hydrant. As he hooked in, I ran back, grabbed the other end, connected a section, and passed it to Troy now on top of the tanker. Waiting to secure the hose to the truck as we always have with our pond supply lines, Troy cracked jokes, and thanked Bill for breakfast. Laughing about Bills face turning red, and how anxious he looked with all the other fire crews close by, the humour got the better of us, but we carried on. We were somewhat private and concealed by shrubbery and turns in the road, so we were not too worried about being unprofessional, we were just easing the tension with a good laugh.

Everything in place, Troy on top holding down the hose to make sure it stays in place, it was time to fill the truck. It was at this point in the process of Bill asking Troy if he was ready on top, that the chain of communication broke down. Mark working the hydrant fifteen feet away, took that to mean, “Troy was ready on top”, so with a flurry of hand movements Mark was working the hydrant open like a seasoned veteran. Soon with the sounds of water flowing through the six inch supply line toward the truck, both Bill and I realized at the same time, Troy was holding the hose! We both yelled “Stop!”, took two steps back and watched in shock as the water filled the line and was heading for Troy. Fast. BOOSH!

The fully charged hose flicked Troy aside like a paper doll and blew off the top of the truck, down on to the ground mere feet from where I was standing, and hit the ground running like a snake on fire. It whipped back and forth violently, cutting a trench in the gravel and shooting all debris in its path directly onto the road, across the side of the truck, and straight up into the air for about sixty feet. Just as it reached its prime, the faint squeaks of a hydrant closing, and the sounds of hysterical laughter filled our senses. Just then, with a thunderous cacophony the gravity neutral, gravel infested water hit the ground in one big blob. My first reaction was to check on the guys. I could hear Mark laughing, so he was fine. Troy, picking himself up off the top of the truck pale faced and big eyed, gave me the thumbs up.

Then I looked at Bill. He was bright purple, had sweat beading on his forehead, his hands were clenched. He was speechless. When the twitching in his eye came to a halt and he took his first breath, I relaxed. I started to laugh. I thought for sure he was having a stroke. You can't turn that colour and not blow a gasket. With another deep breath, Bill spoke.

in subdued tone - “Fill the fucking truck.” he turned and walked away to regain his composure. I laughed just a very small amount.

With his very specific instructions, came a chorus of laughter from Troy and Mark at the ridiculousness of what had just happened. Being the kind of people we are, we deciding that perhaps we should fill through the pump this time to regulate the pressure. And then laughed a bit more. With the firefighting efforts currently under way and the enormous draw on the system, the Kelowna crews had increased the hydrant pressure by a third to keep up with the demand on the system. However, that day, the load was light, so we got it all. Quietly, we went about our job as Bill watched on. Twitching. After a quick switch over, and just as we began filling our tank, the Kelowna fire crew drove slowly, past our position. The three of us looking cool, like nothing happened, nodded. They nodded back, looked around, smirked and carried on without spoken word. They knew. We were quiet. We knew that what they saw told a story of how we had just blown this hose apart, and they knew Bill was in charge. We felt bad for Bill. Mark, Troy, myself; none of us looked at one another for a what seemed like a very long time. We just kept our heads down, did our job. When our tank was full we closed the valves, stored the gear, fixed our belongings and got in the truck.

With Troy sitting beside me, Mark and Bill in the mother-in-law behind us, I sat behind the steering wheel quietly. When I looked over slowly at Troy who was staring straight ahead, not making a sound, I caught the corner of his mouth purse. I started to giggle. This infected Troy, and he began to giggle. Soon we were laughing so hard tears were thick in our eyes. I couldn't drive if I wanted to. Troy, with his laughter back under control, and my breathing slowed, we could hear Mark in the back with Bill. He had heard us laughing in the cab, and started laughing himself. Hard. I worried for his safety being alone with Bill. Bill said nothing, he just shook his head. But I could see in his eyes that if he were not in charge, he might find this funny. With the tension out of the way, we carried on for a very productive shift. Did as we were asked, and then some, without a single incident.

With not much happening in the wind department, a good portion of the crews that went up to Kelowna that week were sent home early. The thought of having to face a fire storm of this magnitude, really made me nervous but I was willing to try if it meant helping those in need. Driving through neighbourhoods destroyed by fire is not a pleasant experience. The charred, mangled heaps I could see from the truck, were peoples homes. The amount of loss was staggering. We witnessed people walking through streets like zombies, staring at the remains of what was their home, wondering what to do next. Everything these people owned, gone. Yet, even though these people were in the middle of a very serious life altering event, and experiencing great loss, they were all very appreciative of our presence. Waving at us and yelling “thank you” as we drove along. Little boys staring, little girls waving, dogs barking, mom's crying, dad's standing beside his family, being strong. It was surprisingly, very emotional.

We continued our tour without much action and within a few days we too were on our way home. Which was fine, I was really missing my family and things were really starting to improve. With our routine patrol complete, and now considered redundant, we left Kelowna feeling a little underused, but very appreciated. We were all fine with that. On our way out of Kelowna we came across a few other trucks heading back to the lower mainland. Richmond Fire Hall, Comox Valley and Nanaimo Fire Departments, were all heading home so we teamed up and formed a convoy of Firetrucks heading West. It was nice, as nobody really wants to drive home alone.

Before a big descent into the valley, our convoy of trucks and support vehicles stopped at a brake check near the top of the hill. Lined up in a nice orderly fashion, I set the parking brake and shut down the truck so we could have a bit of a stretch. I jumped out, shut the door, and was about to break into a nice big groaning stretch when I saw red out of the corner of my eye, and heard a sound that didn't fit the situation. I looked over and sure enough, here is a red sedan, it's driver rubber necking to look at us and all the while, fighting to regain control of his now out of control car. The tires screaming from heat and friction, smoke pouring off in copious amounts, swerving left, then right and back left, right once more and holy shit! Now it's rolling. Once, twice, up in the air ten feet spinning faster, back down on the ground with a metal bending crunch, three, four, five times it rolls, and comes to a perfect landing on all four tires. Thunch! The sound of water hitting a hot engine, silence.

Just as the car parked itself in the ditch Troy came around the front of the truck. “Get the first Aid Kits, blankets, and call for help!” I grabbed the first responder kit and started running across the parking lot heading for the car in the ditch. Half way across the parking lot, an elderly man suddenly stands up in the middle of the ditch a hundred feet from the destroyed car, looking dazed and confused. My mind said “what the hell?” as I realized this guy just came from that car! “Sit Down!” “Sit Down!” I yelled to the man hoping he would hear me and if nothing else, listen to somebody telling him to sit down because he didn't know what else to do. I crossed the highway, and ran to the man, helped him to the ground, and asked him if he was okay. “My wife...my wife” he repeated over and over again. As the gentleman sat down on the ground, other firefighters had made it over, adopted proper spinal, and we were on our way to helping this man. Primary exam complete, vitals documented, secondary assessment underway, a paramedic supervisor showed up so I handed this man off to him and made my way over to the car to check on the woman, who had been helped from the vehicle and was now on the ground being looked after by members of the Comox Valley Crew, Mark and Troy. These people were safe. As was their little Sheltie dog we found shaking in the back seat when all the dust settled.

I stopped, took a breath and realized that in the time it took me do the little I had done, the highway was closed off, the road was being cleaned of debris and gravel and three hose lines were out and foam was ready to go at any moment, all crew at the ready. A gaggle of Captains on the road looking over the action. I was so very impressed by all of this it will be forever burned into my brain as one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Once these folks were safely transported into the ambulance, and the police were there to secure the scene, we gave our statements and packed up. I looked at Troy, gave him a high five, got back in the truck and drove home. I later went on to meet my wife in Canmore Alberta where we commenced our family holiday. It was a great year.