A NAIT alum's experience fighting fires in Fort McMurray

The fire didn’t get the better of Justin Birch (Automotive Service Technician ’14), but when he stopped at NAIT the morning of May 9 to check in on his classes – still in the protective gear he wore in Fort McMurray – you could tell the massive blaze came close.

After 5 days of fighting fires, delivering supplies and fixing trucks up north, the 23-year-old volunteer firefighter (also an Automotive Service Technician instructor at the time) was groggy for lack of sleep. He stole about 6 hours here and there over a 40-plus hour shift. His hands were blackened by ash and dirt, his hair stiff with it. The scent of wood smoke hung about him.

“Do I smell?” he asked, desensitized to it.

Told that his classes were covered, he left Main Campus, headed home and cleaned up. Then he crashed. Birch slept 18 hours straight, got up for a bit, then hit the sack for 13 more. We talked to him after he returned to teach his 4th year apprentices and asked him to tell us what it was like playing a role in the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history.

A view of the fire from the highway.

I got a text mid-coffee break [at NAIT; Wednesday, May 4] that they needed guys, supplies and fuel brought up there and anything could help. I took baby formula, diapers, food, socks, underwear, toilet paper and anything that was needed. I took fuel. The supplies were all donations.

When I got there and unloaded everything, I was put in gear and started fighting fires. The fires were all over. They ranged from inside town in neighbourhoods to outside town in the forests.

The hardest thing about being up there was no sleep. I ended up going 44, 46 hours without any sleep. Then I finally got an hour in the truck. I was able to put my head down and then there was a call – another fire started up or a hot spot needed dowsing. Or go get a tank of fuel for the trucks.

Not everyone can be a first responder; it takes a certain mindset. You’ve got to be able to persevere and put your head down and keep on going. But the support from everyone else you’re there with [helps]. You’re not alone. If everyone’s on board and you get support, you can get through anything.

Driving through town was the crazy part. There’s no one there. Half the town was out of power. There’s car after car after car in the ditch, just left there, windows down, half with the keys still in them and the lights on. I drove past a city bus that was in the middle of the meridian. The lights were still on and it was running. It was almost like a zombie movie, with the smoke and the haze.

Empty streets of Fort McMurray after the evacuation.

The media plays a big role in what Fort McMurray looks like and how bad it was – and it was bad – but the majority of buildings are still standing. I feel that, within due time, they’ll rebuild, and they’ll rebuild stronger and better.

After I got back and I was told I wasn’t needed at NAIT, that they had my spot covered, I went and tried to clean up. I decided to get my hair cut. I thought it would be easier to get it cut and cleaned and then have a shower. When I got there the barber told me I had to get a buzz cut because have my hair was singed. Part of my eyebrows were, as well. I didn’t even realize it. So when they were cutting it, it all fell out as one clump, all singed together.

I had a few nightmares when I came back. I was so tired and sleep deprived. I was still on edge. Are you going to get woken up, mid-sleep, to evacuate the camp? But I feel a lot better that I was able to make a difference. I felt that – having my training and my knowledge – that sitting by and just watching the news was the wrong thing to do.

Seeing the amount of firefighters that showed up from other municipalities, the volunteers, was just astounding. It was awesome to see that everyone pulls together – everyone staying strong. It was like Alberta was one giant family.

As told to Scott Messenger

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