The Current

'A lifetime of firefighting in an hour:' Firefighters recall tackling Fort McMurray fire

Within a day of orders that all residents had to leave Fort McMurray, three firefighters from St. Albert near Edmonton, joined hundreds of others to help extinguish a city on fire. It was an experience they won't soon forget. They share their experience with The Current.
Three firefighters from St. Albert's fire dept. talk about battling the wildfires 1:06
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Within a day of orders that all residents had to leave Fort McMurray, three firefighters from St. Albert near Edmonton, joined hundreds of others to help extinguish a city on fire.

They've seen a lot — but they've never seen anything like the devastating fire in Fort McMurray.

Video courtesy of Mike Chyka 0:12

(Video shot by St. Albert firefighter Mike Chyka)

"How do you fight that?" says firefighter Steve Gillingham, pointing to a video on his phone of a raging fire he won't soon forget.

Gillingham's fellow firefighter Mike Chyka shot the video. "The houses just act as a temporary shield until the next house goes right. And then it's just a chain reaction," says Chyka.

The fire was out of control — a surreal scene for firefighter Bryan Mroz. 

"Watching the houses go - 30 seconds per house - just house after house," says Mroz.

Firefighter Bryan Mroz shows photos of the Fort McMurray fire to The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti. (Julian Uzielli/CBC)

It's estimated about 2,400 homes and buildings burned in the Fort McMurray fire, either completely or party destroyed.

But the many firefighters who joined together to tackle the raging fire saved around 25,000 buildings, believed to be 85 to 90 per cent of the city.

"Fort McMurray is still alive," said Fire Chief Darby Allen, who often refers to the wildfire as "a beast."

The St. Albert firefighters fighting the Fort McMurray fire worked 51 hours straight - with four hours sleep. (Mike Chyka)

The team of firefighters from St. Albert's Fire Services were deployed to Fort McMurray a day after the fire hit on May 4. In total, they worked for 51 hours with four hours sleep. 

"When things are burning, you don't stop," says Steve Gillingham

St. Albert firefighters from left to right: Steve Gillingham, Mike Chyka and Bryan Mroz. (Julian Uzielli/CBC)

To Mike Chynka, arriving on the scene for their first call was "apocalyptic." No matter where he turned everything was on fire.

"Everything ... They had to move in backhoes and bulldozers to knock houses down so we could actually create a fire line... We said this is the line we are going to protect, everything else is lost."

Trying to get ahead of the fast-moving fire was overwhelming for all the firefighters.

"Seeing 30 homes on fire is a sight you are not going to easily soon forget," says Gillingham. "Then trying to figure out how to fight that ... it doesn't matter how much experience you have on the job, you are going to be taken back by that much fire in that many homes."

Some of the Fort McMurray firefighters lost their own houses but continued to fight fires. It's something that is not lost on the St. Albert firefighters who came home May 6 for their Saturday shifts. 

All of them say they will go back to Fort McMurray. If given the opportunity, they want to be there. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli.