Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: Expect the unexpected

November 4, 2022  By Ed Brouwer


There is no such as a “routine” fire. Photo credit: © Sue/Adobe Stock

The author C. S. Lewis said, “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?” As I look back upon my journey with Fire Fighting in Canada, I hope that is true of the training issues and concerns we dealt with over these past 22 years. 

Recently a friend of mine asked, “How are you, Ed?” Rather than my usual “I’m good,” I replied, “I’m hopeful.” He looked at me sideways and asked, “What are you hopeful for?” I grinned and said, “Not sure, just hopeful.”  I have often thought that one role of the first responder is to be a bringer of hope. I have witnessed, as I’m sure you have, that a strange thing happens within patients/victims when we pull up on scene. They, along with the crowds of onlookers, seem to let out a sigh of relief.    

As fire service trainers, we too are hope bringers. We have that  responsibility not only to our department’s members, but to their families. 

In the last issue of Fire Fighting in Canada I asked if your department had a Mayday policy.  And, if so, does your department train on it? Let me ask now, “If not, why not?”

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If you put on SCBA and enter IDLH environments, you need to drill on “Calling a Mayday”.   

Now the letters IDLH don’t sound very intimidating, but they mean Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health.  

There needs to be a better understanding of the word “immediately.” The way firefighters react to any given situation is based on their former training and experience. If they do not have “Mayday calling” in their experience, calling a Mayday will not come naturally when the need arises. 

It is my conviction that both firefighters and officers need to experience what it may be like to call a Mayday before it is the real thing.  

Do you want your real Mayday call to be the first time the IC or radio operator gets to test their Mayday skills? 

At your next practice ask your members to answer these two questions. 

  1. What is an EIB?  
  2. How does it work? 

Then ask yourself, “Does it work?” Don’t entrust your life to an untested  safety system.  

In the past I have introduced you to fallen firefighters who in their passing have become “influencers” regarding my training focus. It has been my intent to honour their sacrifice by learning from their LODDs, and thereby bringing hope to future firefighter families — hope that their loved ones will come home after the incident.  

One of the most powerful ways to help young firefighters to become old firefighters is to instruct them in how and when to call a Mayday. I remind you that all the recorded messages indicated that in the Sofa Super Store fire (written about in the last edition), the C9 firefighters were lost, disoriented, and either running out of air or already out of air. The firefighters were already in imminent danger, deep inside the building, when they began to call for assistance. As to firefighters who survived, seven firefighters lost connection with their hose line and their crew, two firefighters ran out of air. None of them called for help.  

Another way to help young firefighters to become old firefighters is to stop saying, “It is a routine fire.” Firefighters must be aware that there really is no such thing as a routine fire. To survive you must expect the unexpected.  

The Call: On March 6, 1987, the Kitchener Fire Department responded to a multiple-alarm fire at Horticultural Technologies that drew firefighters from across the city. The fire progressed through the night into the next morning.  Sixty-nine firefighters, half of Kitchener’s force, either battled the blaze or cleaned up the mess. The firefighters had no idea what was burning, but reported that the smoke and flames were “every colour of the rainbow.”  They learned later that the plant manufactured Oasis Floral Foam, a hard foam-like substance used to hold floral arrangements in place and keep them moist. 

The Aftermath: In May 1989, Dave Ferrede, age 32, went on sick leave and was subsequently diagnosed with primary liver cancer. He was dead a month later. Then Capt. Stahley was diagnosed with primary liver cancer. He died in July 1990 at age 54. They were the first to die; 23 out of 69 firefighters who responded to that blaze developed cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Since then, 13 Kitchener firefighters have died, all but three of them with occupational cancer. Seven of the 10 firefighters who died of cancer fought the Horticultural Technologies blaze.                                                                                                                            

The Call: In 1993, the Warwick Volunteer Fire Department responded to a propane tank fire in Warwick, Que. 

The Aftermath: The propane tank exploded, taking the lives of four members: Raymond Michaud (52), Raynald Dion (39), René Desharnais (36) and Martin Desrosiers (31).  

The Call: On July 9, 1997, the Hamilton Fire Department responded to plastics recycler Plastimet on Wellington Street North. This fire turned out to be the largest plastics fire in Canadian history. There was more than 400 tonnes of PVC and other plastics stored on site. It burned for four days, spewing clouds of dioxin and other hazardous chemicals into the air.

The Aftermath: It became known as one of worst environmental disasters in Canadian history. It was also reported to be the fourth-largest environmental disaster of its kind in the world. The cause was, as suspected, arson. However, although the arsonist confessed, he could never be charged by Hamilton police, and his name was never made public. The arsonist was just eight-years-old at the time.

The Call: In the early hours of Aug. 16, 2003, Ministry of Forests in B.C. dispatched an Initial Attack crew to fire K5-628. The three-person crew worked at suppressing this single tree lightning strike. At 11:00 our two crews, Sons of Thunder and Dragon Slayers, having just returned from the wildfire crisis in Osoyoos, were dispatched to assist. Then, just before noon, a second fire broke out near Chute Lake and new flare ups North of Kamloops, forced authorities to divert the air support from K5-628.    

Little did we realize as we stood on Antler Beach waiting to be ferried across to Squally Point that this was going to be the first of many long and frustrating days.  Since the strike, some seven hours earlier, the fire had grown to 15 hectares. By the following day this number would be increased to 1000 hectares, mostly due to the constant high winds. 

The second day, following the fire’s edge, we climbed to the 1000 metre level, and working with the Initial Attack crew put in over three kilometers of hand guard. With support from air tankers, we dealt with several escapes near Wild Horse Canyon and helipad 7. Other hot shot crews set up bladders and ran hose lines. The third day found us at even higher altitudes and in rougher terrain.  

The smoke column hung ominously above us. The wind’s changing direction caused fire whirls and blow ups. All three days had brought unstable air masses and erratic fire behavior, but that day was different.  You just sensed something was coming. Sure enough, by 16:00 we were warned that 70 kmph winds were predicted to push the fire back on top of us. We were to prepare for immediate helicopter evacuation. The 30 of us were flown to a staging area in Peachland where we awaited further orders.  

The smoke column over the fire was now a huge mushrooming mass. The colour of the smoke indicated a very intense hot fire. We never did go back to Squally point. The high winds drove the fire over the guards with such intensity that it devoured our bladders, hose lines and medivac kits. Over the next few days, we would find out exactly just how vicious this fire dragon was going to be. In one day, it grew from 2,000 hectares to more than 11,000. That was just the start of K5-628, a fire that some thought to be a “routine” call out to a lightening strike. You may know this fire by another name, the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire.  

For the next two weeks we worked our way North, up Chute Lake Road, past the lodge and along the 11 kilometers of the Kettle Valley Railway to the canyons above Kelowna.  On Aug. 21 the fire made a run towards Kelowna.  Fire apparatus from all over British Columbia and Alberta converged on Kelowna in an attempt to stop this dragon.

The Aftermath: More than 30 days had passed since we were dispatched to that single tree lightning strike; 25,600 hectares were burned, 239 homes were lost or destroyed, 12 wooden trestles in Myra Canyon were vaporized and decks on two steel trestles burned. There were 27,050 people evacuated plus 4,050 re-evacuated. Total cost was estimated at $33.8 million.

The maximum resources used at one point were 700 personnel, 250 pieces of heavy equipment, and 20 helicopters. Over 1000 forestry firefighters, 1,400 armed forces personnel, 60 fire departments, hundreds of loggers and “Big Iron” operators took part in the suppression efforts.  

Our fire crew was honoured to be the last crew to leave this fire. We still had the last hot spot spike and ribbon dropped by the helicopter doing infrared camera grid runs that last morning…39 days after the strike.

As you can see in the aforementioned examples, there really is no such thing as a “routine fire.” If we would just get rid of the word routine, it may give our members a better mind set for expecting the unexpected.  

We have almost completely ignored the most important first step of survival on the fire ground — training firefighters to recognize they are in trouble. Perhaps the problem is that we have not clearly defined what it means to be in danger. Whether it is a structure fire, dumpster fire, vehicle fire or wildland urban interface fire, a wildfire or vehicle fire, we must expect the unexpected. That is why fire departments need to develop clear Mayday decision-making rules. These rules need to specify when a Mayday must be called. I also suggest that you institute yearly Mayday training programs complete with written exams and hands-on scenarios.  All firefighters, including officers, must take part in this throughout their fire service experience. 

Far too many ICs are not prepared to answer a Mayday call.  That is why the entire Mayday system needs to be trained, drilled, and tested.  

With the help of my Charleston 9 influencers, I will close with some sobering issues cited in the Sofa Super Store and warehouse fire Phase II Report, (a document seen as one of the most definitive and complete post-incident fire analysis ever conducted). The report revealed that although they were hearing of deteriorating conditions, none of the chiefs decided to evacuate the store and move from an offensive to a defensive attack. That decision didn’t come until after several disoriented firefighters had been rescued.  

Among the 272 pages of the NIOSH report were the following lines: “The communications process was not controlled. The Fire Chief, the Assistant Chief, and Battalion Chief 4 were all issuing orders and providing direction independently, using a single overloaded radio channel. Critical messages, including distress messages from firefighters inside of the structure, were not heard.” Now check out this point: “There is no suggestion that any CFD members lost or surviving failed to perform their duties as they had been trained or as expected by their organization. The final analysis does indicate however, that the CFD failed to adequately prepare its members for the situation they encountered at the Sofa Super Store Fire.”

Until next issue – remember to train like lives depend on it because it does. I beg you…let no firefighter’s ghost say their training let them down.  4-9-4   Ed Brouwer.


Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., retired deputy chief training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue, a fire warden, wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor and ordained disaster-response chaplain.  Contact aka-opa@hotmail.com. 


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