May 6, 2016, Peace River, Alta. - The Northern HEAT – (Hands-on Education Awareness Training) conference here is a wonderful event – and this year held coincidental to a horrific backdrop of the carnage of wildfire.
This is my second conference in less than a week and the contrasts are stark and illuminating.
Twenty-four hours ago I could see the CN Tower. This morning I smell wildfires in northern Alberta – the other side of fire fighting. We may be a country of densely populated urban centres, but Mother Nature can still deliver cruel reminders about who is really in charge.
The deputy chief for the County of Grande Prairie Regional Fire Service, Dan Verdun, was to pick up some of the conference speakers at the airport yesterday. He is in Fort McMurray.
The president of the Peace Regional Fire Chiefs Association, High Level Chief Rodney Schmidt, was instructing flashover training earlier this week when he got a call, jumped in his truck and headed north, lights and sirens flashing – an industrial/wildfire threatening his community.
Handfuls of firefighters from departments in the region have been dispatched to Fort MacMurray or High Level, everyone being careful to ensure there are enough resources left at home to provide proper coverage in this volatile, tinder-dry province.
Driving north to Peace River from Grande Prairie last evening, up Highway 2 and through the stunning river valley with Capt. Chris Welsh and firefighter Craig Rees from Sexmith, smoke from a fire in Fort St. John, B.C., blanketed the setting sun, ash in the air when we got out of the Tahoe.
There may, depending how things go today, be more conference speakers here than delegates. But as Schmidt said when I emailed him to check on the conference status, the show must go on.
And for good reason.
Conferences and trade shows like this are the venue for the intellectual cross pollination that educates and informs the fire service.
My email in box is full of notes from the likes of Jamie Coutts, chief for the Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Service, who, needless to say, was in Fort Mac helping out earlier this week. He has seen this movie and his institutional knowledge from his community's experience in invaluable. He has spent a lot of nights in bad hotels travelling Canada and sharing his story since 2011.
Lou Wilde, assistant chief in Kelowna who fought the devastating wildfires there in 2003 and 2009, messaged me last night, asking to give Fort McMurray Chief Darby Allen his best.
Coutts and Wilde know the horror that Allen is living; everyone here is praising the chief's leadership, calm, and authority.
The magnitude of the blaze enveloping Fort McMurray is mindboggling. Reading story after story about the fire while waiting for the flight to Grande Prairie, a Canadian Press report put things in perspective: at 850 square kilometres – and having grown nine times in size since Wednesday – the flames have consumed an area the size of Calgary, where I happened to be sitting in the airport.
This is not new for Alberta. Three years ago when I was in Peace River, a handful of chief officers met to develop a response team similar to those south of the border that deploy to fires too big for local agencies to handle. There was talk of cross training more municipal/structural firefighters and wildland teams to better understand the urban interface, and subject-matter experts (logistics, for example) who could descend on a stricken community and relieve local fire personnel so they could look after their families with clear heads, knowing others were handling the incident.
What struck me, at the time, was the commitment of the group of chief officers in the room – at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night – and their knowledge that the likes of Slave Lake, or worse, was not a possibility, but a given. The institutional memory and the transfer of knowledge among those involved is deep and deliberate: most had been to Slave Lake and were keenly aware that their communities are vulnerable to the winds and climate conditions that whipped the 2011 fire into a frightening frenzy.
After consecutive record wildfire seasons in western Canada, a significant portion of Alberta is burning, so early in the year – 49 separate wildfires as of Thursday night – and BMO Capital Markets says the Fort McMurray blaze alone is "by far the largest potential catastrophe loss in Canadian history."
Having lived in Edmonton in the early 1990s, smoke wafting south from wildfires in the north was common, just rarely in May.
But as fire-and-weather specialist David Moseley, explained in Fire Fighting in Canada in April 2015, May is the most dangerous month.
"There are two weather conditions that are part of the equation," Moseley wrote. "The first is crossover, when the temperature in degrees Celsius is more than the relative humidity expressed as a percentage. The second weather condition is high wind." All that, and the perfect storm of El Nino, a mild winter and little snow.
And as Chief Coutts said in our Fire Fighting in Canada This Week newscast two weeks ago, watch the conditions, not the calendar.
That's why conferences like this matter. As sure as Slave Lake learned from Kelowna and Fort McMurray from Slave Lake, so, too, Fort Mac will build become template for success in the face of horror somewhere else.
Writing last night from 15,000 feet up, on a northbound Air Canada Bombardier Dash 8-300, it was difficult to fathom that the snowcapped Rockies to the west glistening in the evening sun, and the spectacular river valleys below, are complicit in Mother Nature's caldron of disaster.
Conferences like this are the connective tissue of the Canadian fire service. This is where people learn and share and prepare for a day they hope never comes.
The backdrop is smokey and real. If that lends an urgency to the learning in the next 48 hours, so much the better.
But the show must go on.