The power of a yellow shirt: staff stories from High River

Photo of water being pumped out of High River after the June 2013 flood.

Pumping out High River was a big job – with a big reward.

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. Previously, Janelle wrote about flood recovery at the Calgary Zoo.

High River is a long ways from the Forest Protection Area, where wildland firefighters normally spend their time. But the distinctive uniform of ESRD’s wildfire crews – green pants and a bright yellow shirt – became a familiar sight for residents this June.

Pumping out a ‘ghost town’

When the town was overwhelmed by flooding, recovery required all hands on deck – and few people are better at responding to emergencies than firefighters. But they weren’t entirely prepared for what they saw when they first arrived. Todd Lynch, who worked as the town’s emergency operation’s centre branch director, recalls that the town was initially “basically a ghost town.”

Lynch’s team immediately began cleaning the streets of silt and debris – but it wasn’t long until they began filling even more important roles, such as clearing each sector of the town for safety so that residents could return and gather personal items. “It was our crews who drove them to their homes, shoveled out access to their doors, and waited for them to gather essential items and then get them out,” Lynch said.

They had to work fast – “once we cleared a sector, we hightailed it to the next one to let the public in” – and yet, many High River residents – like business owner Linda Sojer – remember firefighters going the extra mile to make residents feel comfortable and cared for. “When I got let back in” she said, “a ‘yellow shirt’ was the first person who came up to me – and the first thing he asked me was ‘what can I do?’”

Making special deliveries 

As it turned out, they could do a lot. We typically think about flood recovery in terms of removing mud and debris and recovering possessions – but meeting the basic needs of residents is just as important, and often just as difficult. Assistant branch director Mike May and his crew spent one hot day driving around town delivering cases upon cases of water to residents while the boil water advisory was in place – even though no one had asked them to do so. When a resident asked Grande Prairie firefighter Cameron Williams when his water would be turned back on – something Williams didn’t know and couldn’t control – he took a break from shoveling out streets to drive a case of water to the resident’s home.

Thanks came in many forms, from many places.

Thanks came in many forms, from many places.

Saving the big day  

Flood recovery is an emotional and stressful experience, and the crew’s experiences with residents were mixed – as May remembers, “we were yelled at, we were cried at, we were thanked.” But by being there to support the recovery, there’s no denying they made a powerful impact on the lives of many people – in ways both big and small.

James Williams, a firefighter from a Peace River crew, will never forget when he found a man’s wedding ring while restoring a local park. Fortunately, there was information on the package from the jewelry store and he was able to contact the man’s future bride. “She was ecstatic -just really happy. She even invited me to the wedding.“

These yellow-shirted teddy bears were given to the crew as a token of appreciation.

These yellow-shirted teddy bears were given to the crew as a token of appreciation.

A little Canadian pride 

After days of shoveling streets and cleaning debris, Branch Director Mike May was present at the beginning of the town’s re-entry phase on Canada Day. He vividly remembers driving around a corner and seeing a row of three houses with Canada flags on them, and families with food and beers in hand, just like any other Canada Day. Helping to return a city’s streets to normal will always be rewarding – but helping Albertans restore a little normalcy to their lives might be the biggest reward of all.

Photo of the wildland firefighting crew that assisted in High River.

Over 200 Wildfire Management staff helped out in High River – this firefighting crew is from Peace River.

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