Time to 'pass the torch': Edmonton fire chief reflects on 40 years of service

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Edmonton fire Chief Ken Block reflects on some of the most memorable moments of his career.

Ken Block, headed to a new challenge in Australia, shares legacy he hopes will live on

Outgoing Edmonton fire chief reflects on 40-year career

3 years ago
Duration 1:39
Ken Block, the outgoing Edmonton fire chief, opens up about what he's most proud of in his 40-year career.

Back in early December, Edmonton fire Chief Ken Block announced he will be stepping down early in 2020 for a new challenge in Australia.

Block joined Edmonton Fire Rescue Services as a recruit in 1980 and was appointed chief in 2009.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, he reflected on some of the most memorable moments of his firefighting career.

"I don't know that it's really hit me yet — that Feb. 10, that all changes," Block said.

"I'm still wrapping my head around it. Forty years is a good run. It's likely time to pass the mantle, pass the torch."

He also looked back on his experience as a firefighter and chief, and the legacy he leaves behind as he departs for his new job halfway around the world.

1987 tornado

On July 31,1987, a massive tornado touched down in Edmonton, killing 27 people, injuring 600 and causing $300 million in damage.

Block was working the day of the deadly Edmonton tornado in 1987. (CBC News Archives)

Block said he can still see the "total devastation that mother nature can bring upon a city."

But that day would provide lessons for Edmonton firefighters, leading to new approaches and technologies for use in future natural disasters.

"It certainly pointed out the importance of having the capacity to respond to the risk that our community has," Block said.

Block speaks to CBC Alberta Late News host Zahra Premji about the legacy he leaves behind when he moves to Australia. (Craig Ryan/CBC News)

'A bonfire waiting to be ignited'

On July 21, 2007, the biggest residential fire in Edmonton history consumed dozens of homes in the MacEwan neighbourhood. The fire began in a four-storey condominium complex under construction, and flames quickly spread to 18 townhomes, which were destroyed. More than 70 other homes were damaged.

"I wasn't expecting to see that ...You've got essentially what amounts to a bonfire waiting to be ignited. That happened that day and with that wind it was mass devastation," Block said.

Investigators determined the fire was deliberately set, but no arrests were ever made.

The MacEwan fire inspired changes to the approach firefighters would take in future fires and 18 amendments to the provincial building code.

The MacEwan fire in 2007 is one of Block's clearest memories of his 40 years of service. (CBC News Archives)

"That has created a safer build environment from a fire safety perspective, post 2009 roughly, when those changes came about, versus what was there before. They were very badly needed."

But, Block said, "there remains an awful lot of work to do on the building codes side."

A new chapter

On Feb. 3, Block's career with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services comes to an end as he takes on a challenging new role in the soon-to-be-established Fire Rescue Victoria, in southeastern Australia.

Block has been appointed the state's first fire rescue commissioner.

The new fire service, which comes into operation July 1, will bring together metropolitan and country fire brigades to serve Melbourne and major regional centres in the state, which has a population of more than six million.

While work remains unfinished, including adding fire stations and firefighters, Block says he's ready to on a new adventure.

"There's this special extraordinary opportunity in Australia ... and it's almost like a blank canvas to be able to shape a new fire service going forward and that's a very compelling opportunity," Block said.

He said, regardless of being in Australia, an Edmonton Oilers fan he is, and an Oilers fan he will remain.

"I am a tried-and-true Oilers fan and I'll be watching very closely the march to the playoffs," Block said.