It was the kind of heavy-handed knock on the door no one wants to hear, that told Donna Stewart a forest fire was closing in on her home.
“I was terrified,” said the 65-year-old retiree, one of more than a dozen people evacuated after fire threatened the community of Badger this May. “By the time we had our shoes on the municipality was there and we could hear the fire trucks.”
But the firefighters on those trucks weren’t so different from the people they were coming to assist. Like most rural communities, Badger and the Rural Municipality of Piney is served by a volunteer fire department made up of area residents who give up their free time to train and serve the community.
“We have a very dedicated group of people here,” said Duane Boutang, reeve of the RM of Piney. “All of these guys have regular day jobs, they all work and then do this too.”
And although Stewart is now back at home, the Rural Municipality of Piney is continuing to fight the fire, which grew to 53 hectares before being brought under control by recent rains and firefighter action.
“It’s been a frustrating battle,” said a fatigued Boutang.
The RM declared a local state of emergency on May 13 to better co-ordinate its response. An emergency operations centre was set up in the municipal office in Vassar — a community that narrowly survived another devastating fire in 2007.
“The thing is, we know this fire wasn’t started by lightning, it was people,” he said. “If you’re going to be in the back country, you have to be careful, very careful.”
The reeve expressed gratitude for the effort the province has put into helping with the firefights this spring. Piney’s 15 volunteer firefighters were joined by 80 more from across the province and 40 from British Columbia.
The province’s water bombers also joined in, along with additional water bombers from Quebec and Minnesota and a DC-4 aircraft from the Northwest Territories that sprays fire retardant.
These battles are proof that being a volunteer firefighter in Manitoba is no walk in the park.
“There’s been times when our volunteers have worked as long as 36 hours, and that’s 36 hours straight,” said Boutang.
Manitoba Fire Commissioner David Schafer, said volunteer fire departments are both the heart and backbone of rural emergency services.
“They provide all the same services that would be provided in an urban centre,” he emphasized.
Volunteer firefighters may also be trained as paramedics or first responders given the needs of the municipality they service, he added. All are trained at the Manitoba Emergency Services College through an internationally recognized training program.
“First and foremost, it’s about safety, whether it’s a structure, a vehicle or a wildfire,” said Schafer.
And because rural volunteers face the same situations as urban firefighters, they also face the same health risks.
“Manitoba has possibly the strongest the presumptive legislation in the country, regarding cancer-causing agents,” said Schafer, noting firefighters may be exposed to toxic materials while on the job.
Today most volunteer firefighters receive some form of payment for their time, whether on an on-call basis, an honorarium, or reimbursement for time spent training.
However, Dave Green remembers when things where a little less professional.
For the past 35 years Green has been a volunteer firefighter, starting in northern Manitoba and finally settling in Portage la Prairie, where he is the city’s parks manager.
Portage la Prairie relies on a small full-time fire department supported by volunteer firefighters.
“Technically things have changed a great deal from when I started,” he said. “Personal protection has changed greatly, and the equipment we use today is far superior to that used when I started.”
Green added training has also become much more regular and professional in the past three decades. Volunteers must prepare for a wider variety of emergency situations.
“The kinds of calls we get can vary greatly,” said Green.
One call that stands out was a train derailment involving hazardous chemical in the 1990s. Firefighters worked in shifts to safely handle the material.
Manitoba’s fire commissioner would agree that work has become more diverse for volunteers.
“The single biggest change, has been in the number of different types of incidents that responders are attending to,” said Schafer.
What hasn’t changed is the need for volunteers to provide professional emergency services in rural areas.
“I got started doing this because there was a real need for it and it was a real chance to help the community,” said Green.
And although there is always an element of physical danger when responding to calls, there is also an emotional drain. Fatal crashes, deadly fires and exposure to those have lost so much can take a toll as well.
“It can be very hard to deal with, I don’t think you ever get used to it, but it does harden you up a bit,” Green said. “But as long as I’m healthy enough to keep doing this, I’ll continue to volunteer.”
A sense of camaraderie among firefighters, and access to counselling services if needed, help volunteers and professionals deal with the stress, he added.
Rural departments also rely on each other for assistance when responding to calls. During a wildfire in the Sandilands area last fall approximately 160 volunteers came together from 27 rural fire departments.
“It was the single biggest display of mutual aid we have seen, and the show of support between departments, municipalities and it really showed the strength of our rural departments. It was really great to see,” said Schafer.