Fort McMurray's water warrior fought to keep the flow to firefighters going

As the forest burned around them, Fort McMurray water treatment plant staff stayed put, determined to find a way to pump out the huge amounts of water firefighters desperately needed.

Water treatment boss recounts the battle to get water to the fire crews fighting the 'beast.'

The CBC's Briar Stewart explores the impact of the Fort McMurray fire on the city's water supply 1:13

For 38 years, Guy Jette has manned the water treatment centre in Fort McMurray, and now as head of the operation, water quality is both his personal passion and chief responsibility.

But as he peered out the window of the control room on May 3, that wasn't his biggest concern.  

Guy Jette, manager of Fort McMurray's water treatment plant, remembers the 'crazy hours and stress level' as he and his team battled to push more water out to firefighters as the wildfire raged. (Terry Reith/CBC)

The city was on fire, and there wasn't enough water.

"We couldn't push it hard enough, fast enough, at the right location, and the right time," he told CBC News.

Jette could see plumes of smoke and multiple fires burning through the trees, which surround part of the city's water treatment facility perched on the edge of the Athabasca River.

The view horrified him, but it was the sound of loud explosions that frightened him the most.

By now Fort McMurray was under a mandatory evacuation, but Jette and nine others stayed behind, glued to the computer screens in the water treatment plant's control room.

"I could not let this beast win, that was the bottom line. My home was here, my house was here, my kids are here, so no, we couldn't afford to lose," he said.

But as smoke began to waft into the facility, the team lost some of the communication systems which track water levels in the reservoirs. Question marks suddenly appeared on the screens where numbers had been recording water pressure and flow.

'A nightmare'

Jette described that time as the low point in what was rapidly becoming his own personal hell.

"We were fighting fires from north to south, east to west. That was challenging. That was almost a nightmare. That was a nightmare."

Jette provided this photo (taken May 3) of the wildfire burning near the back of his facility. (Guy Jette)

With critical equipment down, Jette and his team reverted to the old-fashioned way of gauging where water was needed the most: they looked out the window of the control room.

"We thought, okay that looks like a larger fire than this one, so it is possible this one is closer. Let's focus on getting water there. That is how we did it."

But there wasn't enough water.

Fort McMurray's water treatment facility is three years old, and while it had four newly installed filters that could more than double the water output, the equipment hadn't yet been fully commissioned. Regulations required that Jette do a test for bacteria before starting them up, but it would take 24 hours to get the results.

With no time to wait, he picked up the phone and told officials what he was going to do —  push through more water.

The plant went from pushing out 30 million litres of water a day to 86 million litres. But as the fires continued to burn, and his communications systems kept failing, Jette worried that it still wasn't enough, so he looked outside toward the Athabasca River.

Jette started up new filters inside the water treatment plant to more than double the amount of water pushed out to fight the wildfire. (Terry Reith/CBC)

He asked an oil company to install a pump into a raw water reservoir, which would allow Jette to pump river water directly into the system. The move came with risks: because it would bypass the treatment facility, it could lead to contamination and a boil water advisory that could last throughout the entire summer.

The pump was installed, tested and ready to go. In the end, much to Jette's relief, he never needed to flip the switch.

"It would have been a difficult decision but I knew I would have made it," he said. "It would have killed me.

"I know how dirty the Athabasca River is. It would have been a big mess to clean up."

Water plant under threat

For those first few days, Jette and his team worked 20-hour shifts. As they battled to get as much water to the fire crews as they could, firefighters were working to protect the water treatment plant itself.  

A pumper truck was stationed on site, and the fire came within a metre and a half of the facility's electrical transformers.  When a hotspot was still smouldering in the blackened forest outside the control room, one of Jette's employees headed out into the bush himself with a fire extinguisher.  

As they struggled to keep the water flowing, Jette admitted, they feared for their personal safety. They strayed from the rulebook to design a new evacuation plan in case they got cornered.

When more staff arrived from Calgary and Red Deer on day four of the fire, Jette said, things immediately got better. He eventually got the results back from the bacteria test performed on the filters — they were negative. However, during those frantic days, the plant temporarily lost its UV disinfection equipment, so Jette upped the amount of chlorine in the water.

A view of the burnt forest beside the water treatment plant after the fire. (Terry Reith/CBC)

A month later, the entire water system now needs to go through a flush, which is why most of Fort McMurray is still under a boil water advisory. The province has hired a contractor to go and drain each of the municipality's 10 reservoirs.

They will then be cleaned, disinfected with chlorine, refilled and tested. This process is already complete for the reservoir which provides water to the lower townsite, and the boil water advisory has been lifted there.   

Work is currently underway for the Timberlea and Thickwood area, and Jette said that is where the advisory will likely be lifted next. The goal is to have it lifted for the whole city by the end of June.

For Jette, as he looks back at the battle to get desperately needed water to the fire crews, he shakes his head, recalling the "crazy hours and stress level."

But that is not what bothers him the most. Of the 12 operators at the water treatment plant, three lost their homes.

"When our colleagues came in and we knew they lost their homes, that raised the level even higher.

"It still gets me today."

WATCH: 'Nothing left' in Fort McMurray's Timberlea subdivison