Whitehorse volunteer firefighter retires after 47 years

A volunteer firefighter retired after 47 years of service with the Whitehorse Fire Department. Mark Iceton started when he was 19 and is being thanked for his efforts with training new recruits.

"He would storm in and I think that speaks a lot to his drive and to his commitment to being a volunteer'

It's quite a commendation: A plaque from the Whitehorse Fire Department thanks Mark Iceton for "47 years or 17,155 days of dedicated service." (Philippe Morin/CBC)

After 47 years of service, Whitehorse volunteer firefighter Mark Iceton has retired.

Over decades he's attended countless fires, mentored new firefighters and helped the department adapt to change.

He retired this week at age 66 without ever having been burned or seriously injured.

"I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the firefighting aspect of things. But, you know, there's the bad times too, when you have a fatality or something like that. But I enjoy firefighting and doing a service to the community," he said.

Sternwheelers fire of 1974

One memorable call was the destruction of two ships, the sternwheelers Casca and Whitehorse in 1974. 

Iceton was 19 at the time and new to the firefighting volunteer service. 

On that day, he helped spray buildings beside the riverboats, which included a round house where train mechanics worked in what is now Shipyards Park in Whitehorse.

The mechanics' shop was covered with tar paper siding and the fire "was so hot, it started melting the siding on the buildings," Iceton remembers.

After the main fire, he stayed behind to spray down spot fires which popped up from within the ships' wreckage.

Iceton also remembers seeing the Stephen Hotel engulfed in flames in 1977. That early-morning fire saw the hotel in Whitehorse completely destroyed and guests exit via windows and a rear fire escape with the help of firefighters and the RCMP. 

Iceton said fires were more common in decades past.

"We used to have more fires than we do now. Like maybe three or four fires a month," he recalls.

The sternwheelers Casca and Whitehorse burned in 1974 when Iceton was a new volunteer. He remembers the heat was so intense, it was melting siding off nearby buildings. (Credit: Photo by George Tumpach, in the collection of Murray Lundberg)

Covered in paint, solvent and 'whatever else'

Wayne Smyth, a fire prevention officer with the City of Whitehorse, started volunteering with the fire department in 1976.

He remembers Iceton served as a teacher to new recruits even then, in his early 20s

"Pretty much all the skills were learned at the fire scene, and Mark was a real go-to person for new staff on the Whitehorse Fire Department," he said.

Once in the mid-1980s, both men crawled into a dark garage during a house fire in the Whitehorse neighbourhood of Crestview.

They were splashed with buckets of paint, solvent and "whatever else," was on a series of shelves which collapsed above them.

"We came out of there and we were covered. There were many times Mark and I were in the thick of it and Mark was not one to back down. He would storm in and I think that speaks a lot to his drive and to his commitment to being a volunteer," Smyth said. 

Iceton recalls that day with a laugh,

"I remember my gear was all different colours," he said.

The headquarters of the Whitehorse Fire Department features some mechanically-styled, scrap-metal art. Volunteer firefighters participate in 15 different fire departments across Yukon. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Changes in equipment, understanding of health risks

Firefighters' equipment has changed immensely since the 1970s, and Smyth said today there is far more understanding of health and safety.

"The gear is so much better nowadays. Back when we started, a breathing apparatus wasn't even on the truck. Many nights we would be in the thick of fires and not have any breathing protection," he said.

Firefighters also used to carry their own equipment to fires, storing gear in their personal vehicle or house.

Iceton says today it's understood that residue and "off gassing," is harmful and can lead to cancer or other illness. 

Those kinds of risks have even informed a campaign where Yukon firefighters called for more coverage of cancer as an occupational hazard.

"He's proven himself a very dedicated leader within the department. He's been a mentor to many of our staff over the years," said City of Whitehorse Fire Chief Jason Everitt. (Archive / CBC )

Iceton said he is retiring, in part, out of concern for others on the force, and due in part to an injury sustained by building a house.

"I feel pretty good. In my left knee I have some arthritis and it's starting to bother me now. I kind of wrecked my rotator cuff. So it was time to leave and keep the safety of other firefighters in mind with that. You know, you don't want to put somebody in danger trying to rescue yourself," he said. 

Day job informed his volunteer job

Iceton's day job was with the City of Whitehorse's water services. 

"This actually had some tangible benefits for us," said Jason Everitt, the city's fire chief. "We rely on the hydrant and water system and Mark was our resident in-house expert on this."

Firefighters marked the occasion of his retirement in a small ceremony Dec. 8. 

Iceton's family, including wife Elaine and daughter Serena, were also thanked.

"It's not a sacrifice just on behalf of the firefighter, but the family as well," Everitt said.

For his retirement, Iceton was presented with a piece of his firefighting jacket called a turnout coat. The name patch has been cut out and put into a frame, alongside a copy of the famous poem, the Fireman's Prayer.

Firefighters thanked Iceton and his family for their service, understanding that volunteering can be disruptive to family life. "For years and years, middle of the night, middle of the day, he was there," said Whitehorse fire prevention officer Wayne Smyth. (Whitehorse Fire Department)