The other fire heroes: meet the Alberta Wildfire management team

As the Fort McMurray wildfire raged, firefighters could be seen working tirelessly to battle the blaze.

At the same time, another group of people was also working tirelessly, behind the scenes, managing the provincial response.

Their jobs differ greatly from the widely-celebrated firefighters and air tanker pilots who were on the front lines, but the stresses faced by people like fire weather meteorologists and logistical coordinators were profound during those first weeks of May.

ChangSha Night Net

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    Every day of the wildfire season, two weather briefings take place to inform employees of the risks posed by Mother Nature. During the first week of May, Paul Kruger led the team responsible for making the forecast.

    “Any time you don’t get any rain in the last two weeks of April, you’re starting to think there could be some sort of problem somewhere in the province,” Kruger said.

    He and his colleagues knew there was the potential for a big fire incident, but without an actual ignition it’s impossible to tell where. Once the fire started south of the Fort McMurray, they made their best recommendations of how the weather would impact its growth.

    The conditions were explosive, unlike anything he’d seen.

    “Maybe that might be the one thing that I’ve never seen, just how dry the whole layer of atmosphere was,” Kruger explained.

    READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire officials receive heroes welcome at Alberta legislature 

    As Fort McMurray residents fled the inferno, the importance of Kruger’s forecasts grew. It was the kind of stress he’d experienced just a couple of other times in his 20 years with Alberta Wildfire.

    “Yeah, you’re taking it home and then I am trying to think of other ways to get my mind off of it because my decisions have been made so I am hoping that I did the best job that I possibly could with the information that I had,” Kruger said.

    On the other side of the building Kruger works in, a situation room is full of cubicles, monitors and professionals who use his forecast to make critical decisions.

    “It’s coordinating basically all of the resourcing and actions controlled by this room,” Cory Davis explained. “So aircraft and manpower and logistics and priority setting for the province.”

    As the provincial Wildfire Operations Coordinator, it is Davis’ job to manage over 200 aircraft and thousands of front line firefighters. He admits that other than being on the front line of the firefight itself, it’s the most demanding job he’s ever held.

    “Because you are moving a lot of resources and trying to fill the needs of the fire and the needs of areas as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Davis explained. “And just having that stress of trying to get what they need when they need it and not always being able to succeed with it.”

    While Fort McMurray was burning, there were several other wildfires burning out of control. Imagine having to decide what areas should receive help first.

    “We’re always faced with stressful scenarios, whether it’s 100 fires out in the middle of nowhere in the bush to one fire threatening a major community,” Davis explained.

    READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire timeline of events 

    He doesn’t credit himself for his department’s success, but rather the team that supported him.

    “It always tends to be a stressful environment and we work so closely together and (such) long hours that we become a pretty close and tight-knit family.”

    Wildfire manager Chad Morrison shared all of these stresses in addition to being the spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire during the disaster.

    “You know that the fire is just outside the town and evacuations have been called,” Morrison recalled. “Those are big moments for everybody… you feel just during that whole experience how much it’s impacting people.”

    “There’s a lot of work and training that goes into getting prepared for these types of things and even with that training, it never truly prepares you for these types of historic events.”

    Morrison’s updates had the power to mobilize families and corporations into action.

    “Trying to get information out to the public is a huge, key thing,” Morrison explained.

    Yet when asked if he thinks he should also be called a hero, Morrison deflected the praise onto all of his colleagues.

    “Doing these types of events are humbling experiences as a whole, fire tends to be that way,” he said.

    “What I think is so rewarding is just seeing how everyone pulls together… seeing Albertans as a whole pull together and do what they can to bring Fort McMurray back.”

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