Doing what it takes to save a town

Doing what it takes to save a town
Fire Chief Darren Linaker.

When a forest fire hits a town, flames can consume homes and other buildings in a matter of minutes. Defending against that - and preventing loss of life - can be harrowing, even dire.

It only takes a few strong gusts of wind to quickly make the blaze overwhelming. Faced with that kind of horrendous and unpredictable challenge, fire officials must consider the wider ramifications of losing control of a fire completely. In those circumstances, sometimes the best option is to let the fire burn says Fort Smith’s Fire Chief, Darren Linaker.

“We have preplanned for certain events, but if we encounter some kind of cataclysmic firestorm we’re only humans so there’s not much we can do,”  said Linaker. “Safety of people is paramount and you can’t fight a firestorm.”

Wildfires crossing into town pose a grave threat to lives and property. If a fire shows no signs of abating and the fire department cannot contain it, drastic measures may have to be taken to avert wider destruction, says Linaker. That could include purposely knocking down houses to prevent the fire from leapfrogging deeper into town.

“We may have to look at some kind of triage situation,” he said. “That means certain buildings would be lost in order to keep a fire from spreading and putting people at needless risk of injury or worse. By people, I mean fire department members.”

Such an extreme decision is only made as a last option. Linaker told The Journal that the incident commander in charge of a firefighting operation is the one who makes the final assessment of the situation. “Hopefully, there would be other resources there for consultation such as forestry,” he said.

That would be the case if it was simply one building burning, but in a wildfire situation the incident commander must report their findings and recommendations to their supervisor who is a member of the emergency management team headed by the mayor and the senior administrative officer (SAO). Only those two officials have the final authority to let a building burn or destroy a row of houses in order to prevent the fire from spreading, says SAO Brenda Black.

The rationale for this policy, she said, is that the incident commander cannot see the wider picture of how a wildfire is advancing on the town. Before making a decision, the mayor and SAO receive input from a large team with varied knowledge including Parks Canada, the forestry department and the fire chief.

Linaker says before the wildfire season begins, members of Fort Smith’s volunteer fire department prepare by doing training exercises and acquiring additional equipment for fighting interface fires. At the height of the fire threat in Fort Smith during the last two weeks an additional pumper truck was borrowed from Hay River, but Linaker said it was returned shortly after “because the fire hazard has abated.” He believes Fort Smith is safe now with its own three pumper trucks on hand.

One of the town’s major concerns while fighting a widespread fire are its water reserves. Jean Soucy, the town Director of Water and Waste Water, says Fort Smith normally has 500,000 gallons in holding ponds as well as another 100,000 gallons in its water tower. During extreme situations, such as a large fire, Soucy stated the “[water] plant would concentrate producing quantity and not so much the quality of the water.”

Fort Smith would not run out of its water reserve because when the reservoir is down to half volume the water plant responds by jumping up production to compensate for the reduced levels. Should there be a mechanical failure under fire conditions, he expects the reserve would last about one day. In that case, the three intake pumps that are used to bring water up from the river would be used as a direct supply, and they can deliver about 500,000 gallons a day.

Protecting the water plant’s power sources is obviously necessary. A lack of power was one of the issues that faced firefighters in the Slave Lake fires.  No water came from the hydrants. Soucy says the recommendations made by fire protection consultant Al Roach to the Town of Fort Smith to clean up the area surrounding its electrical substation have been acted upon. All flammable materials have been removed from the property and the Town is also working to have the adjacent property cleaned up. Investing in back-up generators big enough to power the water plant is not financially feasible, but the water tower has a diesel generator to provide power for extra pressure in emergency situations.

Another major challenge faced by a volunteer fire department is maintaining staff levels over the summer when many people take vacations. Linaker says Fort Smith has 22 volunteer firefighters including him. If necessary, he added, mutual aid agreements with Hay River and Yellowknife could provide extra personnel and equipment.

In spite of drought conditions, Linaker says wildfires are a normal part of the summer. In an ideal world he would prefer to have more trucks and people, but he remains optimistic about his fire department’s ability to handle the situation.

“I’m satisfied with what we have at the moment,” he said. “I’m comfortable with what the forestry department has on hand and the direction they are going. There’s only so much you can do.”

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