Pumping out the Calgary Zoo: not your average workday at ESRD

This summer, it’s our goal to share flood recovery stories from staff across the department. This is a guest post by Janelle Lane, of ESRD’s Wildfire Management Branch. 

Photo of volunteer firefighters pumping water out of the Calgary zoo

Pumping out water from the zoo grounds ensured the animals could get back on dry land as quickly as possible.

Most wildland firefighters are used to bumping into wildlife on the job – but Jason McAleenan never imagined he’d be working alongside a hippopotamus.

But that’s exactly what happened on June 20th. Although the Calgary Zoo – with its picturesque location along the Bow River – is usually one of Calgary’s greatest tourist draws, tourists and locals were nowhere to be seen that day as the park was devastated by the rapidly rising river.

When the water overwhelmed the zoo’s infrastructure, the city of Calgary called ESRD’s Forest and Emergency Response Division for support. “What they originally asked for was three or four pumps,” McAleenan said. “After surveying the site, we had about 40 wildfire pumps and six agricultural pumps going non-stop for almost five days.

“The first priority was the hippo area: a hippo had gotten out of his cage and we needed to get the water level down enough to bring these big cinder blocks in to block him off.”

Restoring the crocodile pen to a normal state was also a special experience for McAleenan. “The water had gotten in there and made the water level too cold for the little guys – after we pumped out the area, [zoo staff] could put a heat lamp on [the crocodiles] and warm them back up.”

Despite the strange surroundings, McAleenan said the task itself was similar to fighting a wildfire. “If there is one thing we are good at, it’s moving water. The crew was happy to get the pump practice – ordinarily, you wouldn’t get that much practice in five years of wildfire fighting”.

“There was a black and white difference”

Unit crew sub-leader Laurie Bernes had just been to the Calgary Zoo on one of her last days off prior to the flooding. She admitted that it was strange to see the zoo covered with water.

“I had just been to the zoo, and then to go back—there was just a black and white difference. It was like we were the only ones there besides the odd zoo worker. Usually when you go, it’s just so vibrant – filled with kids and people.”

Bernes said the most memorable part was seeing the progress the crews made. “It was a totally flooded zoo where everyone was using boats to get around. Within three to four days, our 19 people got all the water out of the grounds. Just to see the water level go down…it was a remarkable difference.”

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McAleenan’s pride in his team was evident. “They were the best crew I’ve ever worked with. They were extremely organized. They were not afraid to jump in the water – even when they ended up covered in gross muck from the silt.”

Darryl Dziadyk, the zoo’s director of facilities and horticulture, said the crew played a phenomenal role in addressing one of their major priority items: getting the animals back on dry land.

“This team was absolutely independent, professional, and courteous. Without them, the zoo could have sustained additional damages, and other animals may have been put at risk” Dziadyk said. He says his only regret is not being able to thank the crew in person before they left.

While the recognition is appreciated, and the job unusual, working with other organizations is often part of the job for ESRD staff – and, if given the chance, they would do it all over again.

Group photo of firefighting unit that assisted flood recovery at the Calgary Zoo

The crew – still smiling after all their hard work.

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