The president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg, Alex Forrest, says lessons from a deadly fire in 2007 helped save the lives of two firefighters on Saturday.

The men were responding to a call for help on Bruce Avenue on Saturday when they heard there might be someone stuck in the basement. When they went down to check, they got tangled in wires.

Then, there was a flashover.

"Everything literally explodes," Forrest said. 

"Everything from the gas, the smoke, all combustible material instantly goes up in a blaze."

The flashover also makes it impossible to see by turning everything black with smoke. Throughout it all, heat rises to between 500 and 1000 C, according to Forrest.

"Your body's literally burning… The firefighting gear is not made to withstand that type of heat stress," he said.

The circumstances made the men believe "this could be it," Forrest said, noting they struggled to get out as the heat was building up and the situation was "unbearable."

"It was only at the very last second when the crews shot water down the stairs to create sort of a water curtain, the firefighters were able to exit," he said.

"They're entangled within wires, they actually felt the water stream that was being shot down the stairs and they gave it one last try. They went through the wall of fire and they got to the stairs and they were able to go up."

Lessons learned

For Forrest, it was a reminder of a flashover that killed two firefighters in a home in Winnipeg's St. Boniface neighbourhood in 2007.


Capt. Harold Lessard, left, was 55 when he and 57-year-old Capt. Thomas Nichols died in a fire at a home in St. Boniface in 2007. (Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service)

"We'll never forget that night when we lost our two fire captains and four others were badly burned," he said.

But, he said, they didn't die in vain.

"Everything we learned [then] was put to use yesterday … It probably saved the lives of these two firefighters [on Saturday."

Psychological trauma

While physical scars are likely to heal, Forrest said, the psychological ones linger much longer.

Support — particularly that surrounding critical incident stress and post-traumatic stress disorder management — is vital for the entire crew.

"Every firefighter that was there in 2007, we'll never forget that night when we lost our two fire captains and four others were badly burned," he said.

"They think, 'Geez, am I going to be like what happened [then]?"

Fortunately, the answer to that question on Saturday was 'no.'

"The crews did a fantastic job," Forrest said.

"The firefighters did everything they could and they managed to get these individuals out. All of Winnipeg should be breathing a big sigh of relief that these firefighters were not killed in that fire yesterday."

With files from CBC's Erin Brohman