Local Heroes: A Lifetime of Gratitude
“Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the “hero” within us is revealed.” – Bob Riley
The fire now known as “The Beast” of 2016 revealed more than it’s fair share of heroes in Fort McMurray. But in a common thread when talking to all of them, not one would acknowledge their hero status, and instead, they all spoke of the heroics of their teams, and other individuals.
While residents of Fort McMurray will more than likely always remember May 3rd as the day “the Beast came to town”, Regional Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Management for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Darby Allen, was already assembling his support team on May 1 to try to hold off the fire outside the city limits.
One of his first calls went to Dale Bendfeld, Director of Municipal Law Enforcement. Darby says he knew of Bendfeld’s qualifications, and would provide invaluable advice and guidance. Not only an RCMP officer, Bendfeld has a strong military history, serving as a Lieutenant-Colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces (Infantry and Signal Corps). He was also in Ottawa during the ice storm of 1998, and commanded the Reserve Task Force that went into the Kelowna Fire in 2003. That day, Allen asked Bendfeld to join him, “for a minute to help out”, and three weeks later he was still there helping.
Another member of that team who really emerged as a real leader was Chris Graham, Deputy Director of Emergency Management. He had only been on the job and in Fort McMurray for four months. When the fire swept in, Graham was still making arrangements to move his family from Ottawa. Graham said that his background as a military police officer for 25 years gave him the skills to follow direction and make fast, strategic decisions with limited information. These skills were in great demand during the fire, when everything happened and changed very quickly. Graham continues to make arrangements and hopes to reunite his family in Fort McMurray before too long.
It was Bendfeld and Graham who came up with the plan to split the population on the roads during the evacuation that is credited with saving lives. Their quick thinking helped people leave the city in a more safe and orderly manner. With their teams on the ground coordinating the assistance that was needed.
“The Beast was a threat to the people of Fort McMurray, and we just kept using everything at our disposal to try to get around it and beat it back. The three of us really used each other’s strengths, and we bounced ideas off each other and listened. We grew closer, and we even checked each other’s egos a few times. [Allen] is really good at leading, and [Graham] is an amazing planner, so when they were doing those things the rest of us just needed to follow their lead,” said Bendfeld.
Chief Allen had been the Director of Emergency Management throughout the floods of 2013, so he felt that gave him a bit of insight about how State of Emergencies work. He also understood how mandatory and voluntary evacuations worked for different parts of our city; however, nothing prepared him for what his team faced during the wildfire.
“We all now share a bond after going through all this. But interestingly, now when I look back at it, we never fell out, and we never had an angry word, and that was so important for the strength of the entire team,” added Allen.
The “game changer” for all three men was when the fire jumped the Athabasca River on that fateful Tuesday, and it was going to become a bigger threat to the community.
“It was challenging through the whole thing, but when you start getting updates that Abasand is gone, and this is gone, and that Waterways is gone, that’s so hard on you, because you are obviously feeling for those communities. But for me, we were so concerned when the fire starting marching around Thickwood and Timberlea. I was worried at first light that Wednesday what we would find. I was worried we would have casualties, if not fatalities, and I was worried and I actually thought that if we came out with 50% of the properties that we would have done quite well. And when we saw first light, it was encouraging to see how much work had gone on, and how much those men and women were able to save, it gave us all new hope to keep on,” said Allen.
Graham said that it was easier to break it down into smaller pieces, as they first concentrated on the preservation of life, and then focus on the preservation of buildings.
“It was so huge, but we just stayed focused, and that preservation of life was huge in those first few hours,” said Graham.
Municipal officers, RCMP officers, and firefighters all jumped to whatever task need of them, whether it was directing traffic, setting up hoses, saving animals, feeding fish, and of course, fighting the Beast.
Another team that played a huge role in the preservation of life was the Phoenix-Heli team, with Paul Spring at the helm. From the vantage point of their helicopters, Spring said that it was his entire team that contributed at every level to help accomplish so much.
Spring, his wife, Andrea, and their entire team were involved much like Bendfeld, Graham and Allen, long before the residents of Fort McMurray had a hint of the danger that lay ahead. “We started on the Friday, April 29th, so I had gone out with a machine and a bucket to help out on the fire at Parson’s on that night, and then Saturday we had a little break. And then Sunday we had two guys out helping out with a mutual aid near Taigna Nova,” said Spring.
By lunchtime on Tuesday, Spring’s company began to receive calls from those trapped in Draper. Spring picked them up in the helicopters and brought them back to their hangar on Saline Creek Parkway (better known as the old Airport Road). With their pets in tow, some spent the night with the staff until they were able to safely evacuate.
The preservation of life continued as the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre had to evacuate their patients to safety. Again it was Phoenix-Heli that stepped up to the task. They were able to transfer every single patient that needed to be airlifted to camps further north, which were set up as medical sites until they could be transported hospitals down south.
“People keep asking me what it was like,” said Spring. “I was working in Draper, when I swung over toward Waterways to see if the house was gone, and there were helicopters dropping water and fixed wing bombers going into your community. So I flew in under them to have a look, and it was surreal realizing that your house was in that huge fire. My team, and I, we are in our safe helicopters, surrounded by nice blue sky, and we are looking at the fire, and we can see it, but we are not on the ground, we are not trapped by it, we can turn and fly to safety. So it was all calm, cool and collected from where we were, but what you are seeing with your eyes doesn’t really match up.”
Andrea Spring did not have the same vantage point, but helped coordinate everything on the ground, as administration staff left with their families for safety. When asked if it was different this time watching her husband fly off to fight the Beast, her voice goes silent for a minute before she answers. “Yes, it was different this time around. I wasn’t sure how far he would go to help the community, or to help someone if they needed him. I always know how capable he is, but this time I was worried he would put himself at risk for someone else,” she said.
Sadly, the couple’s family home in Waterways, bought in 1987, was lost. Paul was the one who broke the news to Andrea.
Paul says that his team was amazing through it all. Many, like the firemen, said goodbye to their families and sent them off to a safe place to wait for them. They then rolled up their sleeves to create a camp at the hanger, so they could continue working in whatever capacity. There was such a wide range of things that they did, from aiding fire officials map the fire using night vision goggles, to aiding in controlled fire burns using machines equipped with torches. Some carried water bucket, after water bucket for days on end to save the various communities around town. And of course during the whole time, the continuous 24-hour service by the medevac helicopter, an initiative led and financed by Spring.
Jordan Redshaw never thought about leaving our municipality once the fire started encroaching; and like all the other heroes in this story, he was on duty the weekend before the fire flared up. Redshaw works in communications for the municipality, and eventually became the one man show behind the Twitter account, which kept the public informed.
“Working with guys like Dale, Darby, and Chris, I was just basically following orders because they were all doing their jobs so well. So they just enabled me to do my job, and that’s what I did. There was never really a moment where I stopped and thought how we were actually evacuating the city from all the buildings, ” said Redshaw.
Redshaw said he felt safe, as he knew that the people he was entrusting his life with were so capable. Because he felt so comfortable, he was able to provide vital information. From where to go for safety, to where to obtain gas and how to register to have their pets rescued.
“There were some emotionally challenging moments, when I was trying to figure out how to tell people about some of the different situations. And each time I posted I learned something from each post so that the next one would be a bit better for the public,” added Redshaw.
The information he provided helped the public to remain calm, and they knew that they could rely on the information that he was putting out about their neighbourhoods.
“The worst moment was when I was trying to frame things in my mind about how to tell people that they lost their homes, or that some lost their pets. And on that Wednesday night, I was up all night thinking about how I was potentially going to tell people that I love that they will never have a home to go back to, because it was looking really bad that night. … [The] work that the firemen did that night is the most amazing part, and I hope that that story gets told, because we could have lost so much more if they hadn’t done what they did on that night,” said Redshaw.
None of the heroes in this story like that “h word” as Allen eluded to during one now famous interview. But they are the best of the best from Fort McMurray, and they will continue to give and lead as the city rebuilds.
“I’m not sure pride is enough of a word. I’m not sure if there has even been a word written yet…but it’s this overwhelming joy that people stepped up and did things that, to be honest, a lot of people wouldn’t do. And a lot of those things were almost not humanly possible…they were out there with significant mental and physical fatigue for four and five days straight. The fact that I am associated and part of such a team, it makes you incredibly proud,” concluded Allen.
With so many heroes among us, that have showed us what is possible during the darkest of hours, we will surely rise from the ashes, like the mythical phoenix, and we will show just how strong Fort McMurray really is to everyone.
Chief Darby, Chris Graham and Dale Bendfeld. Nicknamed the “A” Team.
Helicopter photo by Medivac pilot, Ryan Tyler. Local HERO assisting with patient evacuation.
Far left photo by Ryan Tyler, medivac pilot.
Top middle: Noon, May 4th. Time to leave.
Top right: The first place we took the helicopters, staff, animals and some vehicles/fuel was the model aircraft club’s field, 20 minutes from the hangars.
Bottom middle: Week 2: Fleet ready to go as soon as visibility improved. Shows Phoenixville camp. 2 more 6-sleeper trailers not visible in photo.
Bottom right photo by Medivac pilot, Ryan Tyler. Local HERO assisting with patient evacuation.