Fort McMurray fire damage 'puts a lump in your throat': volunteer firefighter

Volunteer firefighters from the First Nations and Métis communities of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, the latter community only accessible by air, describe what it has been like to battle the 'beast' that has consumed large areas of Fort McMurray.

Volunteer crews at one point worked 36 consecutive hours battling blaze

Ron Quintal from the Fort McKay volunteer fire department was surprised to be getting a call to help in Fort McMurray, and the damage left the veteran firefighter taken aback. (Courtesy Mel Grandjambe)

Long before Ron Quintal could see the mass of smoke and hear the roar of the fire as it moved through Fort McMurray, he knew the city was having a crisis, simply because he was getting the call. 

"I have been the deputy fire chief for Fort McKay for 10 years and we have never been dispatched to Fort McMurray," said Quintal. 

He has also never seen a fire quite like this. It has been repeatedly described as a "beast" — a raging, explosive inferno that has dramatically, and sporadically, devoured parts of the city and large swaths of tinder dry forests. 

More than 500 firefighters have been deployed to fight it, including 16 from the First Nations and Métis communities of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. 

Fort McKay lies 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. It has population of 700 and a volunteer fire department. Even further north is Fort Chipewyan, a community that is only accessible by air, which is how Brandon Voyageur travelled into the fire zone. 

"When we got in there with the plane, I could see the columns of smoke already. I knew it was bad," said Voyageur. It was then as the plane approached Fort McMurray that he realized the "city was the column of smoke.

"It puts a lump in your throat."

Right away Voyageur thought, "this is going to be another Slave Lake," referring to the massive fires five years ago that resulted in about $700 million in damages.

Sixteen firefighters from the First Nations and Métis communities of Fort McKay, pictured, and Fort Chipewyan, are among the hundreds who have been deployed to help local firefighters. (Courtesy Mel Grandjambe)

Both Voyageur and Quintal arrived in Fort McMurray late Tuesday, and as they drove to the command centre to get their orders, they could feel the heat through their trucks. 

Within minutes they were dispatched to a neighbourhood and worked straight for the next 36 hours. At the end of that exhaustive first shift, Quintal took a cold shower, sat in a chair and threw his head back in disbelief. 

"I couldn't believe what we had been through. What I had just saw. I saw an entire city on fire," said Quintal.

Those initial days were pure chaos, but since then things have been less hectic. 

The fire isn't tearing through neighbourhoods or encircling the downtown, and the concern now is about putting out the hotspots. On Sunday afternoon, the team was dispatched into a wooded area to douse the embers still glowing in the ash. With the strong winds there is a real fear, that they could reignite.

With the adrenaline waning, there has been more time for those quiet moments of reflection. 

"We lost a lot, but we did save a lot as well," said Voyageur.

The cold weather has helped, but both firefighters admit there are still weeks, if not months, of more work to do. The fire's force was so powerful, its path so destructive. 

"At times you sit back and you realize it is mother nature in the driver's seat," said Quintal. "All we can do is make sure we aren't in her way when she comes through."

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Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart