Fort Chipewyan firefighter says trying to save Fort McMurray homes was 'heartbreaking'

Firefighter Kerry Antoine was one of three volunteers from her community to race to Fort McMurray while neighbourhoods were being evacuated.

'We worked very hard to save whatever we could,' says Kerry Antoine

Fort Chipewyan volunteer firefighter Kerry Antoine in Fort McMurray.

Kerry Antoine says her mind was made up long before she got the call May 3 to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire.   

"I knew the day I became a volunteer firefighter, this was what I wanted to do, even though it takes putting my life at stake," she said.

"That's what firefighters do. We train for this stuff."

For the past six summers, Antoine has been helping fight fires in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

On May 3, the day the wildfire spread into Fort McMurray, Antoine was at work. Her brother's neighbourhood was one of the first to fall under a mandatory evacuation order.

"I was so worried about my brother who was living in Abasand. My brother had just got off a night shift so I knew he was at home sleeping and his kids were at work and his spouse was at work."

When she wasn't calling her brother to make sure he was getting out, she was calling her local fire chief asking how soon they would be sending volunteers to help.

"It's just heartbreaking. There's no other words to explain it. Those are our neighbours; Fort McMurray is our neighbour," she said.

She got the call at around 5 p.m. Fort Chipewyan has 30 volunteer firefighters, of whom 10 are actively trained up. They could spare three to go to Fort McMurray. Did she still want to go?

No one was going to talk her out of it. She had about five minutes to get to the fire hall, grab her gear and get to the airport.

'Mommy, I'm never going to see you again'

But going to Fort McMurray also meant leaving her four-year-old daughter with a friend, as Antoine's husband was away working at Syncrude.  

"She's very smart for her age," she said.

"She understands a lot of stuff and her vocabulary is unreal. She knows that it's a dangerous job because she sees it on TV. When I was packing my bag, I had one of my friends come over to watch her, and she was sitting there crying, saying, 'Mommy, I'm never going to see you again.'

"I said, 'Don't say that. You know I'm going to be home; I'm going to be back to you and Daddy.'"

But Antoine admits she felt fear, having seen photos and videos on social media of people fleeing the flames.

"I was a little scared when I was packing my bags," she says. "I was thinking, 'Am I really going to do this?'"

But she knew she wanted to go despite the risks, and within minutes she was at the airport. 

On the flight south, it didn't take long to see the extent of the fire.

"As we're getting closer to Fort Mac, you could just see the cloud of smoke building up and building up. It was so heartbreaking," she says.    

'Everything was just burnt'

On arrival, the three firefighters from Fort Chipewyan joined up with a crew from Fort Mackay and were sent to firehall 1.

Antoine, a firefighter for six years, was one of three volunteers from her community to fly to Fort McMurray May 3 as residents fled the city. (Kerry Antoine )

On the drive to the firehall, "Everything was just burnt," she says. "It was just black everywhere." 

They were put straight to work helping put out houses that were on fire right across the street. 

"Being a firefighter it's hard because you have to try to hold in your sadness. As a firefighter, you're supposed to be tough. 

"But every now and then I had to take a little moment and pull myself together, and not bawl my eyes out when we came to a place where we had to put out a home that was in flames.

"We got called to this one area because a building was still on fire and just half of it was left and what broke my heart was you could see half the house inside, and it was a little kid's room. You see teddy bears on the ground and picture frames. It was so heartbreaking."

Support from family and friends

It also had personal impacts. Antoine's aunt had a trailer in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood and lost everything. Her brother's neighbourhood in Abasand was at risk, and his community had been evacuated. Her parents had a home in Prairie Creek, but were out of town.

"For the first time in forever I wished I was a millionaire so I could help out all my family and friends who need it and have nothing," she says.    

Antoine credits her family and friends in Fort Chipewyan with giving her the support she needed during the three days she was in Fort McMurray, but says she was also encouraged by watching the way families that had lost so much were so strong.  

"I don't know how they are doing it, it's amazing the way Fort McMurray is coming together," she says.   

"You try to find the words to say, but there's nothing. I just can't imagine."  

She didn't want to come back while there was still work to be done, but she was also worried about her daughter. Had her own mother been in Fort Chip and available to care for her daughter, she says she would have kept on.

"I can't personally say that I made much of a difference, but I worked really hard to help my crew and we worked very hard to save whatever we could."

with files from Kate Kyle