By Rod Nickel
GREGOIRE LAKE, Alberta (Reuters) – Fort McMurray’s 160 firefighters worked almost non-stop in the first days of a massive Canadian wildfire that sent nearly 90,000 fleeing for safety, even as some of them lost their own homes, fire officials said on Sunday.
The wildfire scorching through Canada’s oil sands region in northeast Alberta has razed entire neighborhoods in the city. The blaze, in its seventh day and now the size of Mexico City, is moving away from the city and oil sands facilities.
“One of our members stood at the end of his driveway, watched his house burn to the ground, and then put in an 18-hour shift for the rest of the city,” captain Nick Waddington, 37, said by phone from Fort McMurray, which is still off-limits to the public and guarded by police.
“We were going to work to the end to save our city,” he said. “This is our home.”
For each of the first two days, firefighters worked as many as 24 hours straight, inhaled smoke and coped with cuts, bruises and sore feet. None has been seriously hurt.
An especially hard decision was to sacrifice parts of some neighbourhoods in those early days, before firefighters and equipment arrived from elsewhere, to spare others.
The neighborhoods of Waterways, where Waddington used to live, Beacon Hill and Abasand were engulfed in “major, major fires” that left Fort McMurray’s fire crews outmatched. So they abandoned Waterways to save as much as possible of the other two.
“We had to make tough decisions – to leave an entire section of the city to go and save another section,” said Waddington, who is also president of the Fort McMurray Firefighters Association.
There were also clear victories. Damage was limited in other big neighborhoods such as Timberlea and Thickwood.
More than 500 firefighters were in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters, 14 air tankers and 88 other pieces of equipment, officials said.
Waddington credited firefighters from other communities, along with eight probational recruits, who had one month of experience before being pressed into action.
Shift schedules are now returning to normal, and on Saturday, exhausted firefighters got to sleep in a hotel, taking their first showers in almost a week.
On Sunday, Mother’s Day, the Fort McMurray firefighters gathered for a group photo to send to their mothers and wives to show they were “safe and strong,” Waddington said.
Nearly all of Fort McMurray’s 88,000 residents escaped the fire safely. Two people were killed in a car crash during the evacuation, including the 16-year-old daughter of a deputy fire chief from a nearby hamlet who had been fighting the fire.
“Everything in this city is a particular accomplishment,” Waddington said. “Every building. Every person that’s down south right now, that’s alive, is a particular accomplishment.”
(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by Alan Crosby)
Top Image: A fire truck drives by the wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch