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Female crew of Lac La Biche firefighters battle Fort McMurray fires

A specialized crew that is part of the Structure Protection Unit from Lac La Biche has headed north to fight Alberta wildfires

As people are forced to run from forest fire flames that once again threaten lives near Fort McMurray, a group of Lac La Biche County firefighters are running towards it. 

A quartet of female members from the Lac La Biche County Fire Rescue are in the Fort McMurray area to fight wildfires that have burned as much as 11,000 hectares of forests, and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents. 

According to John Kokotilo, Lac La Biche County's regional fire chief, the four firefighters – Leah Larocque, Nicole Cardinal, Rubylynn Montalban, and Anjelica Webb – drove 300 kilometres north from Lac La Biche the northern municipal neighbour on Sunday. The firefighters are members of a Structure Protection Unit (SPU). 

Their specialized training focuses on structures within a wildfire. Using a 4X4 vehicle to pull a trailer of specialized materials and equipment, the firefighters set up perimeters and water sprinklers that can keep structures free from burning debris and approaching flames.  

“We actually put these sprinklers on the rooftops and the gutters of homes, and it covers the complete structure,” Kokotilo told Lakeland This Week, adding that in addition to homes, these sprinklers are also used on garages, buildings, shops, and other structures. “It covers the complete structure with a coating of water and continues to do so until the wildfire has passed.” 

Kokotilo says the role the Lac La Biche firefighters will play while in Fort McMurray is proactive-as well as pre-emptive-in nature. He explained that they will be tasked with setting up sprinklers along with hoses, a water supply, and pumps to protect rows of structures which he says creates a fire barrier for other structures in a particular area. Firefighters remain on the ready, he continued, so that when wildfires do get close, they start up the pumps and start soaking the structures, therefore being ahead of the game with respect to the fire coming down.  

“It kind of creates like a wall of defense,” he said, explaining that if a fire doesn’t have any fuel, it can’t continue on.  

Just hours after the women arrived, officials in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said forecasted winds could send the out-of-control fire on a path towards homes and populated areas south of the Fort McMurray city boundaries. By Tuesday afternoon, Alberta Wildfire crews said the most northern point of the largest wildfire near Fort McMurray was less than 15 kilometres from the city’s southern limits. By 2pm on Tuesday, four residential neighbourhoods and rural communities near Fort McMurray had been given evacuation orders, sending residents to evacuation centres in Lac La Biche and other southern areas.  

This isn’t the first time that Lac La Biche County has been an evacuation centre or shared firefighting crews with other jurisdictions. Last year, the municipal fire service sent an SPU to Fort Smith and Hay River to assist with efforts to fight devastating wildfires in those communities in the Northwest Territories. At that time as well, the Lac La Biche community served as an evacuation centre for displaced Northwest Territories.  

Regarding how long these Lac La Biche firefighters will be spending in Fort McMurray, Kokotilo says that remains undetermined, but added that they can expect to be there for at least a week.  

When members of Lac La Biche County Fire Rescue go on mutual aid missions to fight fires in other areas, he said, the length of time they are gone for ranges from 72 hours to almost two months, as was the case in 2018 when massive forest fires raged across much of central British Columbia. In 2016, during a summer of forest fires that destroyed large residential sections of Fort McMurray, a rotation of local firefighters was called on to assist. 

Kokotilo said that Lac La Biche County Fire Rescue has sent crews to other areas on mutual aid missions every year since 2016, adding that there was one year when firefighters were on standby.  

“Since 2016, we have been deployed over 130 days-in Alberta, BC, and Saskatchewan-providing mutual aid support,” he said.  

Closer to home, Kokotilo said the fire rescue service has sprinkler kits like the structural protection equipment being used in the Fort McMurray region for sale at the County Centre. The kits, which are for home use, are sold at $105. One kit-which contains two sprinklers and a hose-the regional fire chief said, can protect a 1,200-foot structure.  







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