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A very busy Christmas week in extremely cold temperatures capped off a record-breaking year for the High Level Fire Department, as calls for service were the highest they have ever been.
There were a record 58 calls in December along, helping HLFD reach 447 calls in 2021. The previous record was 441 for a single year.
“Overall, I can’t say enough good things about how our firefighters stepped up over Christmas and for the year,” said Rodney Schmidt, Director of Protective Services and Fire Chief.
Christmas week included a number of serious incidents, including an incident on Christmas Day at the Tompkins Landing ice road involving a car that went through the ice. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident and due to some on site assistance getting the people involved out of the ice. The fire department was able to assess them on the highway when they arrived.
There was a structure fire at a home in the area of Dragonfly Crescent on Boxing Day.
The fire started from heat tape underneath the trailer and spread to the bottom side of the trailer. Fortunately, the home occupant recognized the issue right away and called 911. The fire department was able to contain the fire quickly beneath the trailer.
“They did a really good job in extremely cold temperatures to get a quick knockdown, open the underside of the mobile home, and get it sorted out quickly,” said Schmidt.
There were no contents lost in the house and the homeowners were able to move back in the next day after some repairs to the plumbing and heat tape.
And on the evening of Dec. 28, the fire department responded to a call of a semi on fire at the Alberta/Northwest Territories border. A small crew responded in a water tender, driving more than two hours in temperatures hovering around -45 Celsius. Fortunately, the fire was contained to the tractor and the fire department was able to deal with the fire without damaging the trailer. The truck was hauling much-needed groceries to people in the Territories.
“There was a lot of difficulty because nothing was working properly after driving nearly 200 kilometres in a fire truck in that temperature,” said Schmidt.
The crew returned home at 9 a.m. on Dec. 29 only to be called out to a structure fire a few hours later.
A fire had broken out at a large, three-bay shop in the rural area north of High Level, located east of the airport. When fire crews arrived, the structure was already fully involved. With the help of the Fort Vermilion Fire Department on scene for additional water support, crews worked more than six hours to extinguish the blaze in temperatures reaching -42 Celsius.
The incidents highlight some of the unique challenges northern fire departments face in terms of distance and extreme environmental hazards. While High Level fire trucks are designed for winter temperatures and built to operate in the cold, there are still issues when the thermometer plunges to dangerous levels.
“It makes everything much more complex,” said Schmidt. “We are fighting fire with water. We have heating systems on our trucks, but when it’s -45 Celsius, we can’t shut our hoses off or they will freeze.”
In addition to the havoc the cold plays with water and machinery, it takes a toll on the firefighters.
Working in water means getting wet, which can be dangerous in extreme cold. Bunker gear provides some insulation, but it is designed to keep heat out rather than in. That means while there is some insulation, firefighters need lots of rest periods.
“It takes more manpower,” said Schmidt. “There is a lot more potential for injuries due to slips and falls, or exposure.”