By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: May 15, 2015
Bev and Jens Hansen were standing in the backyard of their Second Ave home when a noxious smell came wafting in the air. Almost immediately they knew what it was—something was burning. It was a familiar smell. A few years ago, their house had caught fire and they knew the smell of something burning—noxious and suffocating.
They walked up to the dike that goes along their downtown home at the end of Second Ave and found out their guess was right: Something was indeed burning. The picked up pace and walked to the end of their property and saw the ochre flames shooting from the dock and the black bulbous smoke that had just started to gather.
As the flames shot from the dock and fire sirens rent the air with urgent shrieks, they looked at each other and knew it was time to turn back and quickly leave.
“It would be just foolish to stay,” said Jens. By the time they walked back, curious onlookers had started to gather downtown even as the thick smoke had started to rise and engulf the town like a bad omen. As they came back, the Hansens told the gathering crowds—some with small kids—to leave. They had been planning a dinner outside and the fire gave them a reason to drive from downtown to Shady Tree Pub. By the time they reached the pub, the smoke—thick, dark, and menacing— was already there.
The Hansens may as well have stayed because unknown to them, a strange phenomenon was happening on Second Ave. Those who stayed say the smoke come up to Second Ave, lifted up for a few hundred metres and then made it way to the north-west of the town.
Matt Pillon also lives on Second Ave and he was in his home preparing to have dinner when he heard a commotion outside and saw people on the street looking at the fire. Pillon saw the smoke, called his wife, and decided to leave downtown. “I thought it was a ship on fire but I was worried about its toxicity,” he said.
Pillon closed all the windows and drove down to the spit, where a crowd of 50 people had gathered to see the raging fire. It was an acquaintance there who told him that it wasn’t a ship but rather a dock that was on fire. He returned back after a few hours to find the smoke had lifted and heard the story about how the smoke spared their end of the street.
One street over, on Third Ave, Carmela Voukonic, first knew something was wrong when she heard the howling emergency sirens. Voukonic lost her sense of smell when she was young but when she saw the billowing smoke make its way up to the street, she knew she was close to a major fire. But she neither panicked nor did she leave. She shut the windows and the door tight and went to bed.
“If this was something dangerous, I knew the police would come to evacuate me,” she says.
A few hundred meters from her house, three other Squamish locals were also assessing the fire—from a boat. Nancy and Troy Hogg were out for a leisure boat ride and were returning back to the Squamish Yacht Club when they saw the thick smokes of plumes coming from the Squamish Terminals. Unsure of its toxicity, they decided to wait on the water before coming back to town. They were on the boat for five hours and had a ring side view of the fire and the efforts to bring it under control and bringing the view closer was their binoculars.
Nancy saw how local fire fighters valiantly kept fighting the flames as they waited for a water boat to arrive from Vancouver. She recalls seeing the water boat arrive at 9:30 pm, about three hours after the fire had first started. As they saw the fire engulf the dock from their boats, they kept the radio on for updates and clicked pictures. By 11 pm, as the wind changed direction and took the smoke away from downtown, they drove their boat towards the Squamish Yacht Club, exhausted from a joyride that forced them to stay over water and watch the fire consume the dock.
District of Squamish communications manager, Christina Moore, saw the first signs of the fire from a different vantage point. She was with a friend riding her bike on the Half-nelson Trail above Quest University. A few minutes after she saw the first plume of smoke, her phone started buzzing with calls from her boss and GM, corporate service, Robin Arthurs, and later from Mayor Heintzman. She rushed back to her home, took a quick shower and rushed to the Emergency Operations Centre in the RCMP building where other district staff trained for emergency responses had started trickling in. The next two days was a whirlwind of activity: Getting information from the fire chief, checking it, and then spreading it out on Facebook, the district website, and the local and Vancouver media. After sending out a media release at 2 am, Moore left for home and after a short sleep, came back to the emergency response centre again. The district staff, she says, trains for various roles in the emergency all through the year and the Terminals fire was a chance to put the practice to test. Moore had barely finished working on the fire when the news came about the rock slide. “It was a 12-hour days but all you are thinking about is doing the job you have been trained to do,” she says, smiling.
Neil Deo would agree and so would all 48 career and volunteer firefighters who fought the fire despite demands on their time, jobs and families. When the fire started, Neil was at the Valleycliffe home of fire fighter Grant Murray. The pager buzzed, both men jumped in the car and drove towards the Valleycliffe Fire Hall where they quickly changed into their turnout gear and headed into downtown. Theirs was the first truck on scene. Like every other day, Deo’s plan for the evening was to have dinner and put his kids to bed but he knew this was going to be a long, long night.
As instructed by command, he started attacking the fire from the south side. Despite the gear, he could feel the radiant heat but could barely see 10 feet ahead because of the thick smoke. Inflamed by the wind the fire spread, and it was hard to douse it because it was underneath the dock. But Deo and other fire fighters who had by then joined in kept fighting it the best they could.
Neil was there for 10 hours, taking breaks but coming back to fight the fire. He went back home at four in the morning, went to bed, and came back the next day to fight the fire again after telling his boss, Stephen Burritt of Northyards Contracting, that he was off to fight the fire. Burritt understood he couldn’t be at work, just as his wife Stephanie Towers understood he needed to be at Terminals fighting the fire.
It would be difficult for a volunteer fire fighter to keep giving back to the community without the silent support of their life partner. Many a birthdays, Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners have been interrupted by a crackling radio that says your husband or wife needs to be somewhere else even though you would like him to be here.
Some volunteers such as Michelle Fleury were at the terminal for 16 hours and couldn’t have been there without the support of her husband who shouldered parenting duties while she fought fire.
These unsung heroes also help in other ways. During the Terminals fire, Diane DeCook, Michelle Fairhurst, Stefanie Towers and other volunteer fire fighter wives also bought food and took it to the terminal as their husbands fought the fire. Fire fighter Dustin Hamilton first heard about the fire from his wife, Shannon Swanson, who was on her evening walk when she saw the smoke and called her husband. By the time he and another volunteer came downtown, it was jam-packed with curious onlookers.
“Getting to downtown was hell, there were hundreds of people on the streets,” Dustin says.
The fire was also a test for the skills of Daniel Arnold, trained to be calm and focused by his driver mentors. He had to navigate a big crowd of people as he tried to reach the Terminals as soon as possible on his rescue truck.
“Holy crap! this isn’t going to be good,” Arnold remembers thinking when he first saw the fire up close. Long-time volunteer Jamie DeCook says he was also awestruck at the scale of the fire, and yet it’s in moments like these that the training kicks in and you focus on the task rather than the emotions.
As more fire fighters reached their respective fire halls and then drove towards the Terminals, fire fighter Kyle Derksen and Deputy Fire Chief Bill Stoner set up an incident command post to coordinate the entire operation and create an attack plan.
At the helm was Fire Chief Bob Fulton who knew he would be handling a big fire when he saw the smoke plumes in downtown where he lives. It was one of the biggest fires he had seen in his 27-year career and it took 60 gritty firefighters to douse it.
Fulton says the firefighters, their spouses, Squamish Search and Rescue and the community all contributed in fighting the fire. He says local businesses such as McDonalds, Tim Hortons, White Spot, Nesters and several other local businesses donated food and helped in any way they could.
Fighting a blazing fire with a 40-pound gear may have left many fire fighters exhausted but the support of their family and community gives them new strength.
“People are really thankful and that is what really makes it worth it,” says Jamie DeCook. Though it will take time to know why the fire started and whether enough was done in time to put it out, one thing is clear: When the threat loomed, the community became one.