The dramatic story of one of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history, the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016, told by three of the firefighters who fought to save the city.
On May 1, 2016, a wildfire burning to the southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, led to the declaration of a local state of emergency. Two days later, the fire had reached Fort McMurray, forcing the evacuation of 88,000 citizens and destroying 2,400 buildings. In total, the fire would consume more than 500,000 hectares.
Into the Fire is a remarkable first-hand account of fighting a major wildfire as it moved with terrifying speed. Over the course of six days, firefighters Jerron Hawley, Graham Hurley, and Steve Sackett of the Fort McMurray Fire Department joined local expert wildfire teams and fire departments from across the country to battle the blaze. In photographs and notes made at the time, they vividly describe what they witnessed; their own personal losses and triumphs; and the fire's devastating effects.
With more than 90 stunning colour photographs, Into the Fire is a dramatic eyewitness account of one of the most catastrophic disasters in recent North American history. Intimate in its telling, it is above all a testament to the courage, pride, and extraordinary efforts of the citizens of Fort McMurray, who along with emergency personnel, came together to save their city.
About the authors
JERRON HAWLEY was born in Port Hood, Nova Scotia, and is the youngest of seven children. After enrolling in the Nova Scotia Firefighter School Program in 2011 he moved to Fort McMurray, joining the Fort McMurray Fire Department. He and his wife, Carlene, live in Fort McMurray with their son, Maverick, and their golden retriever, Gally.
GRAHAM HURLEY grew up in Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray. After serving with the Canadian Armed Forces, with a deployment to Afghanistan, he trained to become a firefighter and joined the Fort McMurray Fire Department in 2013. He lives in Fort McMurray with his fiancé, Sarah Macdonald, and daughter, Ava.
STEVE SACKETT grew up on a family farm, just north of Calgary, Alberta. Steve began volunteering as a firefighter at the age of seventeen. After finishing a diploma in heavy duty mechanics, he completed his Emergency Medical Technician certificate and was hired as a Firefighter/EMT in 2009.
Excerpt: Into the Fire: The Fight to Save Fort McMurray (by (author) Jerron Hawley, Graham Hurley & Steve Sackett)
There was a one-ton Alberta wildfire pickup truck with a 200-litre water tank in the back filling from our hose in the bay. The captain of that crew asked for a few guys to join. I stripped off my uniform and threw on our issued wildland coveralls and grabbed an orange hard hat and a pair of work gloves. And it was then that I met up with Steve Sackett. We had met once before, outside of work, when I was hiking with my wife, Carlene, and little did I know how much of an impact he would have on my life. Whoever was looking down on me that day put us together for a reason.
“Hold on tight back there, guys,” the captain of the one-ton yelled at us as we headed out of the bays. We sped up the southbound lane with the highways blocked by people trying to leave. We had no choice but to take the shoulder and some of the ditch to get to where we needed to go: Beacon Hill. Standing on the back of the truck, I looked at the distraught faces of people in their cars stopped bumper-to-bumper on the highway. People were holding their hands up as if they were praying for us as we headed into that black cloud of uncertainty. I’ll never forget it. Although we were responding to an emergency and racing up the hill, it seemed like everything was in slow motion as we passed each and every single person. It was starting to sink in. This is the one . . .
We pulled into Beacon Hill and met another fire crew. One of their members said, “There are still people in their homes – we got to get them out of here.” Visibility was at a minimum. Flames engulfed trees on both sides of the road. We continued into the heart of the neighbourhood, jumped off the back of the truck and split up on the street. I ran up to the first house and smashed on the door – “Fire Department, anyone inside?” We waited a few valuable seconds and then ran to the next house. I’ll never forget reading the first note on a door – “Evacuated safely, may God help us all.” Those words threw me for a complete loop. “Hawley, did you find anyone?” Kyle asked, as I stood still like a deer in the headlights. I replied, “Not yet.”
Driving up the hill to Abasand was eerie. We were going in, and three solid lines of traffic were inching their way out. We took a left at the four-way stop at the top of Abasand Hill. We drove down to the end and saw that houses were already lighting up. The fire had jumped across the valley between Beacon Hill and Abasand.
Chrapko skilfully threaded the truck and trailer through the abandoned cars, motorbikes, and thick smoke. We decided to park on Aspen Hill Drive and make a stand there two rows ahead of the fire. Our sprinkler trailer is a sixteen-foot enclosed trailer full of forestry sprinklers that deliver fifty gallons a minute, forestry hose, a ladder, and a ton of couplings and connections. We worked hard in the thick smoke and blowing embers and strung out approximately six hundred feet of forestry line; at each connection we plumbed sprinklers inline. We had smaller three-quarter-inch line spliced off to allow more sprinklers to soak the houses. Tovey was climbing roofs and attaching sprinklers to the peaks and shed tops. Any residential garden hoses with sprinklers attached were promptly raised to the roofs to help wet the homes. Any potential fuel near the house, like propane tanks or bags of leaves, were thrown out into the middle of the streets. At one point we were behind a house where the back deck was just starting to light up. We were trying to use a garden hose to put it out but it wouldn’t quite reach. We started using buckets and were running a short bucket brigade to put the deck out.
We’d be working as hard as possible, then someone would come running from the front of the house and say forget about it, the front of the house is now on fire. By the time we had our line set up with all the attachments and flowing water, the street would be on fire. There was a hell of a south wind blowing embers onto the next row. Our efforts seemed worthless. We would quickly disconnect all connections and drag all our lines out of the street and move down another three streets to restart. This sequence was repeated a couple of times until we met up with pump truck crews fighting fires further north and west of us.
My home was three houses down. I knew it would be gone.
After being sent to protect and extinguish a fire in a green space behind a gas station at the entrance to Wood Buffalo, a newer area of town, we were sent to Timberlea. Going up Walnut Crescent was interesting. As we drove through the city, we encountered only emergency vehicles. It was so smoky, you couldn’t see much more than 20 feet around you. When we arrived we were tasked with assisting pumper crews and attaching our sprinkler lines on fences, lawns, even roofs. I remember getting on the roof of a garage with no ladder. As I found a way to attach and aim a sprinkler, I could see a line of eight to twelve small lots, five or six apparatuses, twenty to thirty people like me, doing anything they could: driving large vehicles, ripping fences down, climbing roofs, hauling hose lines, getting wet, getting hot, getting muddy, operating saws, swinging tools, and, remarkably, not getting hurt. I felt as though Walnut was the first time we were able to stop it. It was also the first time I really noticed that there were just as many trucks from other places as there were from the FMFD. It put a lump in my throat. I finished jumping fences and kicking gates open, with no tools, soaking wet, boiling hot, like everyone else.
If there is one thing I can’t stress enough, it is that it is an amazing thing to watch a community, a province, a country even, come together. A bunch of first responders had got the word and had stepped up. They felt for Fort McMurray, a town with so much bad press. But here they were. Should any of them read this, I want them to know that should the occasion arise, I will be there.