'She's up for it': Librarian becomes newest Beaverlodge firefighter recruit

Carolyn Bartsch, 51, is the oldest recruit and one of only five women on a team of volunteer firefighters in Beaverlodge, Alta.

'It's something I want to do, so I'm going to go for it,' says 51-year-old recruit

Carolyn Bartsch, a 51-year-old librarian, is the newest volunteer firefighter recruit with the Beaverlodge fire rescue team in northern Alberta. 1:39

When Carolyn Bartsch first slipped into the yellow turnout gear and black helmet last week, she became both the newest and oldest firefighter recruit in the northern Alberta town of Beaverlodge.

The 51-year-old joined the volunteer firefighting team on April 19, after nearly a decade spent on its auxiliary force organizing fundraisers and other events.

Bartsch, who feels confident about the physical challenges that lie ahead, said she lives by the motto that life begins outside your comfort zone.

"And this is outside of my comfort zone," she said.

Carolyn Bartsch, 51, is the newest recruit at the volunteer fire department in Beaverlodge, about 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

She regularly runs marathons and competes in obstacle-course challenges. Three years ago, she donated a kidney; the following summer, she completed 24 kilometres of a long-distance relay race.

"You can do anything you set your mind to, you just have to go for it and work hard," Bartsch said.

When she's not at the local fire hall, Bartsch works as a librarian and administrative assistant at Beaverlodge Elementary School, about 40 kilometres west of Grande Prairie.

'I know she can handle it'

Trevor Bartsch is the deputy fire chief for Beaverlodge — and her son. He said he has no doubt his mother will finish recruit training at the top of her class.

"I'm still terrified of my mom," he said. "She's up for it."

The two have competed together in regional and national races, including Mud Hero and the Klondike Road Relay.

When his mother expressed interest in fighting fires, he pushed her to sign up as a recruit in their hometown.

"It's pretty shocking that she actually wanted to take the plunge and do it," he said. "You don't think your mom's going to join along beside you and fight fires. That's just totally crazy.

"I'm going to have a hard time kicking my mom loose into a burning building, but at the same time I know she can handle it."

The team of 15 volunteers is on call for emergencies in the town and surrounding area. Once Bartsch completes her training, she will be added to the roster.

'She's up for it,' says deputy fire chief Trevor Bartsch, whose mother is the newest recruit. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Bartsch offers valuable life and leadership experience to balance the team's younger recruits, said interim fire chief Stan Metcalfe. 

The typical firefighter in Beaverlodge is male and about 30 years old.

"Everybody comes ... with a variety of different skill sets, attitudes, opinions," Metcalfe said. 

"If you can come to the table and you can deliver exactly what's expected of you, it shouldn't matter your gender, your age, your religion."

Bartsch is one of five female volunteer firefighters. All recruits must pass the same fitness and driving tests — there are no exceptions for age or gender, Metcalfe said.

To prepare, Bartsch takes part in weekly drills to learn and practise firefighting skills alongside her new crew mates.

I don't really care what the haters say because this is something I want to do and it's not their call.- Carolyn Bartsch

She will train with the Beaverlodge fire rescue team for another year before taking a multi-week firefighting course in 2019, followed by an exam.

She hopes to be on call as a full-fledged volunteer firefighter by next summer, Bartsch said, adding that should put any doubts about her age to rest.

"It's something I want to do, so I'm going to go for it," she said. 

"I don't really care what the haters say, because this is what I want to do and it's not their call."

Carolyn Bartsch learns to handle a hose at a weekly training session for volunteers at the Beaverlodge fire department. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.