Saskatchewan

'It's what needed to be done': Volunteer firefighters worked tirelessly for days to fight Sask. wildfires

In total, 22 fire departments came to the Burstall, Sask., area to meet the challenge of battling a massive wildfire in October. Another 75 farmers and producers showed up with tractors and cultivators in tow to help out.

Firefighters from at least 22 communities gathered to fight the massive, fast-moving blanket of flames

Three firefighters comb the fields near Burstall, Sask., amidst wildfires in the region. (Submitted by Darius Cheddar)

The wildfires that spread through southwestern Saskatchewan last month were unlike anything Fire Chief Russell Job had ever seen.

The winds on Oct. 17 reached up to 130 kilometres per hour in the area. More than 34,000 hectares of land burned in fires that rapidly spread — and were difficult to both find and fight without getting injured.. 

"All I can describe to you is from a picture. I was always in the middle of it. It was always just gray and dark," said Job, a volunteer firefighter who also farms out of Burstall, Sask.

"With the strong winds you had the smoke ahead of the fire so far, you really didn't see the fire. That's what made fighting this such a challenge. You couldn't find the fire." ​

The fire loomed close to firefighter Darius Cheddar's vehicle on Oct. 17, 2017. (Submitted by Darius Cheddar)

In total, 22 volunteer fire departments came to the Burstall area to meet the challenge under Job's leadership. Another 75 farmers and producers showed up with tractors and cultivators in tow to help out.

Job said it took four days to completely put out all the hot spots.

"Our normal grass fire — let's say it's at harvest time — you shut down the combine, you go out to fight fire for a couple hours, you go home, you climb back in your combine, you go,"

Firefighters rolled into Burstall, Sask., to refill their water trucks as wildfires ravaged nearby farmlands. (Submitted by Darius Cheddar)

But this, he said, was more like suddenly having another full-time job.

"We went until 4 a.m. the first time, slept half an hour, got called out, and then we went 'til the next night at 10 o'clock," Job said.

"There was a lot of people like that. An awful lot. But it's what needed to be done."

Smoke from the fires loomed ominously over the town's skyline on Oct. 17, 2017. (Submitted by Darius Cheddar)

Darius Cheddar, from the Estuary Hutterite colony, also volunteers with the Burstall fire department. He's been part of the team for two years, but has never seen anything like this fire.

"I've fought fires on the prairies and the grass fires, but not with a wind speed like that. That was quite something to deal with," he said.

The winds created the perfect storm for fighting fires. Job said you couldn't fight in front of it, because it was spreading too quickly. So they had to track behind it. 

"In front of it was way too dangerous because it moved too fast," Job said.

Community support floods in

The firefighters weren't the only ones working tireless shifts.

Shortly after the fires started, women from the Estuary Hutterite Colony came to the rescue with enough sandwiches to feed 60 people.

Kathryn Job said the community had a constant stream of food coming in for the firefighters as they took a few moments to rest. (Submitted by Kathryn Job)

Then that night the local pizzeria donated 25 pizzas to the cause.

It wasn't long before others like Kathryn Job, an EMS worker and Russell's wife, started gathering at the community hall to make sure stomachs didn't run on empty.

Community members, including Janice Arthurs, Pat Constable and Kathryn Job, got together to prepare an appreciation supper for the firefighters on Nov. 4 in Burnstall, Sask. (Submitted by Kathryn Job)

She said about 30 women showed up, taking turns to to cook meals for the firefighters for three days straight.

"I think I cooked up 14 packages of homemade sausage and just brought that. Ladies came with buns and goodies and baking. They were making muffins every single day, whatever we could do," Kathryn Job said.

"If they couldn't sleep, they came to cook."

The dust settles

After four days of fighting fires and making meals, the last hot spots were finally put out.

In total 770 cattle were killed by the flames, and others had to be later euthanized. Valuable stubble on fields was burned up, and grain-filled bins went up in smoke.

Many in the area are again turning to community suppers to raise whatever money they can to help out those affected by the fire.

Russell Job said the fires pointed out some inadequacies in dealing with cross-border fires like this one, which started near Hilda, Alta.

Russell Job farms near Burstall, Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Russell Job)

He said sometimes during an emergency, Saskatchewan crews are closer, but they won't be sent to respond because it's not on their side of the border.

"It's not about the people along the borders, it's about the border. And that's where the government's got to do something," he said. "I think 911 shouldn't know boundaries."

He also is hoping for more training for the volunteer services — because you never know when you're going to need it.

"I took a wildland firefighting course six, seven years ago. And I figured most of what I took did not apply to me. Was I wrong," Job said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Micki Cowan

Reporter/producer

Micki is a reporter and producer at CBC Vancouver. Her passions are municipal issues and water security.

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