Tackling a historic fire in Vaughan
November 1, 2023
By Deputy Chief Grant Moffatt, Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service
In my 36 years as a firefighter, I have seen everything from small bonfires to large industrial blazes, but April 12 was a day I won’t soon forget. It was on that day that Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS) fought one of the largest fires in our city’s history.
Despite the unrelenting efforts of more than 50 firefighters, who battled the flames for two and a half hours, the fires damaged or destroyed 71 units within a new residential site in the Pine Valley Drive and Teston Road area. And while the cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Ontario Fire Marshal, the experience is one our crews will never forget and provides an opportunity to learn from for future response efforts.
Let’s go back to that day. The initial call came around 1:00 pm about a structure fire to the roofs of three units in a residential construction site, with heavy black smoke visible from Major Mackenzie Drive and Islington Avenue, which is almost five kilometres away. Firefighters were dispatched to the scene where it was reported the fire was spreading due to high winds.
Very quickly, we could see there were approximately 12 to 18 homes behind the original three that were also on fire. Crews set up a defensive aerial operation to protect the homes to the south, and surrounded the area to try to contain the fire from spreading further.
Crews were not only battling the flames but also the wind as the fire continued to spread. At this point, 13 of VFRS’s 14 trucks with 54 firefighters, four chief officers, several York Regional Police (YRP) officers and multiple EMS units were on the scene, and a nearby neighbourhood was evacuated as a precaution.
Since the footprint of the fire was so large, we leveraged YRP’s resources to help us identify where to deploy firefighters. Using a helicopter from the regional police air support division, our firefighters used forward looking infrared (FLIR) technology to see where the fire was spreading in real-time. When a new heat signature appeared, we redeployed firefighters to put out the hot spot. This enabled us to try and stay one step ahead of the fire progression.
By 3:00 pm, two hours after arrival, most of the fires had been contained and crews remained on scene to conduct any salvage and overhaul operations that were needed.
What caused the fire to spread so quickly?
Weather can be your friend or your enemy. The wind speed and direction influenced how the fire travelled from west to east, which caused the fire to spread rapidly.
In addition to the wind, April had been unseasonably warm and dry. These conditions, combined with the intense heat from the fire, required firefighters to rotate on and off the scene to keep everyone safe. We knew it was important our firefighters had somewhere to rest and recharge with medical monitoring. As always, we took the necessary precautions, however, despite this, the conditions were such that some of our firefighters had to be seen in a local hospital to be evaluated due to exposure to the intense heat.
The heat not only affected those working to stop the fire, but also created equipment challenges. By the time the fire was extinguished, several fire trucks had been damaged – including melted lenses or lights due to their proximity to the fire.
In addition to the fire in the immediate subdivision, the high winds moved embers creating brush fires about a kilometre away in a ravine area east of Pine Valley Drive. Additional apparatus and firefighters from both VFRS and Township of King Fire & Emergency Services were needed to help contain those quick-moving flames. VFRS also deployed 18 recruits, who were in the classroom at our headquarters, to help fight the fire. Elevated devices were used to flow water into a forested area to knock down fires as they threatened an additional residential construction site. Multiple lines were pulled to hit hot spots all throughout the forest. The high winds and dense tree cover made it difficult to access and extinguish the hot spots which became very labour intensive utilizing chainsaws to gain access deeper into the woods. Firefighters worked on this area for several hours to ensure the fire was completely out.
There are always lessons to be learned after every fire, no matter how big or small. Here are some of the takeaways we learned following this incident.
Requesting help early on is critical both for additional on scene resources as well as coverage for the city of Vaughan. Despite our depth, the majority of VFRS resources were committed to this incident. It can be easy to forget, there is still a whole city that needs protecting. Utilizing mutual aid agreements with other fire departments to help backfill your stations is vital to ensure continuity of service. That day, Richmond Hill Fire and Emergency Services, Brampton Fire and Emergency Services, Township of King Fire & Emergency Services and Markham Fire and Emergency Services stepped in to help keep our day-to-day services going while our crews focused on battling the massive fire.
Further to that, leveraging our colleagues at YRP and York Region Paramedic Services for on-site support was key. YRP officers assisted with restricting access and ensuring the safety of the public while also assisting with aviation support and its thermal imaging technology to locate fire pop-ups. York Region Paramedic Services provided valuable medical support and a large medical unit for firefighters who needed medical monitoring. It is important to recognize, fire can happen anywhere at anytime, and not all fires are the same. Being prepared and having a plan in place before an incident is crucial to success.
I would also like to recognize and commend the VFRS staff, as well as all others on scene who combined their efforts and ensured we had no serious injuries and we were able to minimize the property loss caused by this fire.
About Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service
In 2021, VFRS responded to 11,063 calls in Vaughan and dispatched 1,291 calls in King Township. The successful operation of VFRS depends on its dedicated staff in the following units.
The Communications Division handles all calls for emergency services and maintains close contact with York Regional Police and surrounding municipal fire and emergency contact centres.
The Operational Division provides full service emergency response for fire incidents, sudden medical emergencies, technical rescues, hazardous material incidents, and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents.
The Mechanical Division ensures all fire fighting equipment and trucks are ready and up-to-date on all current Ministry of Transportation commercial vehicle and NFPA safety standards.
The Training Division ensures firefighter skills are upheld and enhanced; it also conducts annual maintenance training required for all firefighters.
The Fire Prevention Division provides public education, fire investigation services, and ensures buildings and properties are constructed and maintained in accordance with applicable fire and life safety regulations.
The Emergency Planning Division ensures City staff as well as residents and businesses are prepared for an emergency.
All units work together to create an efficient and high-quality level of emergency service where we serve with pride and honour.
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