A fire truck from Drayton Valley/Brazeau County Fire Services on its way to Hay River. Photo: Drayton Valley/Brazeau County Fire Services
The NWT has relied on crews from across Canada and around the world to help fight its fires this summer. For the first time, firefighters in Alberta’s Drayton Valley – southwest of Edmonton – got to pitch in.
The call from Hay River came after Drayton Valley/Brazeau County Fire Services had been working to improve its training standards and meet Alberta Wildland Urban Interface guidelines, said Joey Cherpin, the department’s fire training manager and director of emergency management.
Meeting those guidelines allows a department to respond to other communities’ calls for help.
“This is something our department has been working on for a little while, even before the fire happened,” said Cherpin. “The ability to help our neighbours respond is something we’ve been striving to be able to do, beyond the borders of Brazeau County.”
Cherpin says he received a request to help Hay River on August 22. A truck went north from Brazeau County, population around 8,000, packed with extra hose, emergency food rations, camping gear, cans of diesel and other items that might be needed.
A first crew was sent up on August 24 and, on August 31, a second crew of three was sent up to relieve the first team. Three members of the first crew came home on September 1, and the remainder of the crew returned on September 8.
Once the crews reached Hay River they checked in, had a short rest, and then were sent to work that evening. Cherpin said they mainly worked on structure protection and setting up sprinklers. They also had to deal with blow-ups, which is when fire activity picks up due to increases in wind speed and temperature along with low relative humidity.
“I know they did their part of saving a few homes,” said Cherpin.
The county’s volunteer firefighters’ employers and families also had to be considered before a crew could be sent to help Hay River, he said.
“From a fire department perspective, it’s a big thing to have the businesses and employers that allow that,” said Cherpin.
Garlyn Pyzda, a volunteer with 12 years’ experience and a captain at the department, was one crew member deployed north and tasked with helping to protect Hay River’s buildings.
Earlier this summer, Drayton Valley endured an evacuation lasting almost two weeks because of the nearby Buck Creek wildfire. Pyzda says the recent memory of that experience made helping another community in a similar situation more important than ever.
“When you have departments coming in from across the province with the same goal of protecting your community in mind, it’s difficult to express the amount of gratitude that we had,” he said.
“You could see the hopefulness in their eyes when they saw trucks, not just from across the province but from across the country … It felt empowering to go there and be of assistance to someone else when we had that same assistance given to us.”
As a volunteer firefighter, Pyzda says he is used to conversations with his employer about being called out. When he informed the company of Hay River’s situation, he was told to be safe, have fun, and return home.
“They basically got two days’ notice,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for a better employer.”
Pyzda said the response from the firefighters in Hay River was emotional. Like May’s Buck Creek fire in Brazeau County, Hay River’s fire came extremely close to the town itself.
“It was knocking on their doorstep a few times,” he said.
Though the Drayton Valley firefighters only just got home, Pyzda Said they are prepared to go again if needed.
“Am I prepared to deploy again? Absolutely. At a moment’s notice. My bags are packed, I’m ready to go,” he said.