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Matthew Peterson, smiling man with short dark hair in emergency services uniform.

It takes a special person to be a volunteer firefighter

Raised in Crowsnest Pass, and having spent time away from the area as a young adult, Lt. Matthew Peterson has returned to make Pincher Creek his latest home base.

A former newspaper reporter and editor in British Columbia., the volunteer officer switched careers about 10 years ago to try his hand at mining near where he grew up.

“I actually started my emergency services training through the mine with the mine rescue program,” Matthew says. “I really liked the training. I really liked the things we were doing, so I decided to join the local fire department in Crowsnest Pass.”

When the family decided to move to Pincher Creek, Matthew approached fire Chief Pat Neumann to ask if he could become a lieutenant, a rank he had in Crowsnest Pass.

“So, I came over here and worked my way up, got to know everybody in the area and the people,” he says. “It’s been a good fit.”

Matthew admits it takes a special kind of person to be, not only a firefighter, but a volunteer firefighter.

“It’s a huge sacrifice that all the members make, having our families and commitments, our day jobs … to be able to put those things aside,” he says. “At times, we have to leave the family dinner, leave the family outing.”

It’s a decision he’s glad he made years ago, but it does come with an added responsibility.

 

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“You know, some of the guys might like to go out for a few beers after work, but you have to make a conscious choice, where that’s not an option, where I want to be on call for my community if they need me.”

Matthew’s favourite part about the role is the training that’s provided.

 “A lot of really cool things you get to learn, a lot of really good stuff,” he says. “Just being able to use those skills when you go out on calls, it’s huge … and it’s needed.”

And, what kid wouldn’t want to grow up driving a real fire truck?

Unlike some volunteer opportunities where there might be requirements going in, all the training is provided by the department at no cost to the firefighter. But having transferable skills certainly doesn’t hurt.

“In my case, I had my industrial first aid ticket and, of course, my mine rescue training,” Matthew says.

Is being a volunteer firefighter something he’d recommend to a friend or someone in the community? Absolutely!

“I mean, you see those big TV shows like Chicago Fire and such, but in reality it’s us. It’s the people next door, it’s your auto mechanic, it’s your coal miner, that are going to be coming to help you at the end of the day.”

Thank you, Matthew, and to all our firefighters for being there!

 

 

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Junior firefighter Ruan Peterson drops a firehose from a balcony.

Firefighting opportunities for Pincher Creek teens

Pincher Creek Emergency Services is offering students in grades 10 and up the opportunity to begin pursuing a career in emergency services through its junior firefighting program.

Students work toward acquiring their National Fire Protection Association 1001 Level 1 and 2 certifications, which identify the minimum job performance requirements for firefighters. 

They are also educated in hazardous-materials operations, designed to teach future first responders how to handle such materials and weapons of mass destruction.

“We are hoping to offer students interested in emergency services a chance to try it before investing their time and money,” says Lt. Matthew Peterson of PCES.

“This program, along with some real-life experience on calls, will offer students an advantage in the job market.”

Students attend practices every second and fourth Thursday of the month, from 7 to 9 p.m.. The curriculum features a mix of both theoretical and practical learning, with most sessions taking place at the Pincher Creek fire hall. 

 

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Students will join the rest of the department to learn firefighting theory, which is everything from fire behaviour to building construction. They also learn the necessary hands-on skills required to tend to an emergency situation.

According to Matthew, while the majority of instruction and testing will be held in Pincher Creek, there will be the odd trip to “burn houses” out of town to practice live scenarios.

Students are not expected to finish the program by a set date. They can take three years if they prefer to take their time, or the department can assist older students in fast-tracking their way toward obtaining their certifications, which is more intense. 

The department is still working out the cost for a student to take the program, but Matthew suspects parents may only need to cover the $150 textbook fee. He adds that if a student really wants to participate but can’t because of cost, the department will look to find a way to make it work.

While no start date for the program has been released yet, Matthew will be visiting Matthew Halton High School, St. Michael’s School and Livingstone School to gauge student interest. 

For more information about the program or to schedule an orientation session, contact Matthew at 403-563-9197. Students will have to attend an orientation session with a parent or legal guardian to go over expectations and learn more about the courses.

 

 

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Firefighters Jordan Bley and Meagan Muff stand with a Crowsnest Pass Fire Rescue truck.

Firefighters bring unique skills to the table

One of the most interesting things about a volunteer fire department is finding out that almost everyone has a different background and job outside of the fire hall.

Take firefighter Jordan Bley — he’s a field maintenance supervisor at Teck Resources. Lt. Meagan Muff, meanwhile, is a paramedic in the Pass.

“My dad used to do this. I lived on Vancouver Island. So, I spent a lot of time in the fire hall growing up,” says Jordan. “He put a lot of time into it so I wanted to try it myself and give back to the community, as well.”

Like any job, and this could certainly be considered as one, even as a paid on-call volunteer, there’s a lot of learning. His superiors are noticing how fast he’s catching on.

“I guess, my leadership at Fording River is helping me in that,” Jordan concludes, when asked if there’s something he feels he brings to the role from outside of the hall.

A paramedic by day, or by night, depending on the shift, Meagan has always been close to the Rockies.

“I went to high school here in the Crowsnest Pass. I grew up as a child in Elkford but my family moved here when I was 13,” she says.

“I really love the mountains. My dad bought into a business here and we’ve never looked back.”

 

Aerial view of the Cowley Lions Campground on the Castle River in southwestern Alberta

 

While Jordan was exposed to the fire hall at an early age, it wasn’t on Meagan’s radar until around 2007.

“It’s a funny story,” she says. “I didn’t even think about joining the fire department. I’m a paramedic [since 2006] and they had approached me and said my skills would be valuable on both sides. So, I gave it some thought, did the big application process and it’s been great. I’ve really loved it.”

As an officer, Meagan is always learning new things. “They offer quite a bit of training in the department. Every year, I try and take a course.” 

That, she says, can be anything from classes on incident command to structural and wildland firefighting. 

By being not only a fire department but a fire rescue as well, the call-outs can change from day to day.

“We do a lot of medical aids, car accidents and fires, obviously,” adds Jordan. They may also help with certain search and rescues.

With this being Fire Prevention Week, most fire halls will open their doors to the public and crews will visit area schools, highlighting the importance of fire safety. It’s also a chance for departments, like Crowsnest, to show the importance and need to have a strong volunteer component.

“I think everybody has a unique skill set to bring to the fire department. I always like to think no person is an island, we all work as a team,” Meagan contends.

“What Jordan brings, I definitely don’t have. I bring a strong medical background. Not everyone has those skills, so everyone has something [different] to contribute.”

To find out more about becoming part of the team, contact the municipality’s protective services department, during office hours, at 403-562-8600 and press 1 to reach fire rescue.

 

 

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Fire Wise crew leader Chivez Smith walks toward orangish smoke from a ground fire

Fire Wise growth continues

After 20 years tackling environmental issues through her work with Alberta Parks, Jenny Vandersteen was inspired to create her own business in the forestry and wildlife industry.

With her team of four, the initial focus was on private wildfire prevention and education in the Pincher Creek area, which is Jenny’s home.

In two short years, Fire Wise Forest Solutions has grown to over 30 employees, with three full-time contract firefighting crews, wildfire professionals and a new Wildland Type 6 engine truck.

One of Jenny’s goals is to provide meaningful training experiences and stable employment while generating career opportunities for Indigenous people. Anyone, regardless of ethnicity or racial background, is welcome to apply for work with the company, and Jenny works in partnership with Treaty 7 nations, Indigenous employment centres and the Outland Youth Employment Program.

“National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is every day at Fire Wise,” Jenny says. “We strive to create strong, respectful relationships between the local wildfire community and Indigenous Nations of Alberta. We hope to empower them to reach their potential in the wildfire community, bringing pride, achievement, and honour back to their homes and families.”

 

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During the peak of wildfire season, shifts can be 14 to 21 days long, with workers putting in 10 to 14 hours per day and having only a tent for amenities. Eight-person wildfire crews travel wherever they are dispatched to assist in fighting fires and eventual extinguishment, which sometimes takes several months. 

“With the unprecedented wildfire season this year, our wildfire crews have successfully completed over 25 wildfire exports across the province,” Jenny says.

In the off-season, after wildfires are contained or extinguished, Fire Wise shifts into training and fire prevention. Fall and winter months are spent completing wildfire hazard assessments and risk-reduction plans for agencies, communities, ranchers and landowners.

Fire Wise follows up with vegetation management, such as pruning trees, removing diseased or hazardous trees, cleaning up debris, cutting usable wood into firewood and safely burning piles. This reduces risk to wildfires, simultaneously producing a healthier, more resilient forest.

As partners with the Canadian Prairies Prescribed Fire Exchange come springtime, Fire Wise directs its efforts toward prescribed and controlled burning to reduce the chances of large, intense wildfires.

This tactic of wildfire management promotes biodiversity, stimulates native seed germination, controls invasive species, reduces tree and shrub encroachment, increases nutrient cycling, and improves wildlife habitats and livestock stocking rates.

 

 

 

Fire Wise firefighter team wearing yellow work shirts and dark pants.Fire Wise crew members JR Eagle Plume, back left, Kathy Mackinaw, Nikida Poucette and Duke Provost. In front are Jayden Rowan, Phillip Clarke, Justin Yellowhorn and Eric Boe. | Photo by Jenny Vandersteen

 

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Logo of FireSmart Canada with white text and yellow fire image on navy blue background.

Be FireSmart: Reduce home wildfire risks

Each year, wildfires blaze across the province, burning through thousands of acres of land. As they become a more frequent occurrence across the country, it’s important for Canadians to know what to do when faced with uncontrollable wildfires near their homes.

Alberta’s FireSmart program aims to give Albertans the knowledge to do so.

FireSmart is designed to help people implement preventive and mitigative measures to reduce the threat of wildfires to their communities and personal property.

The program provides a wide range of tips and guiding principles for individuals and families alike to make their property FireSmart.

Below are a few helpful program measures to reduce the risks of wildfires to your home.

 

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Yard and landscaping

FireSmart breaks the yard down into three home ignition zones. The immediate zone is zero to 1.5 metres away from your home, the intermediate zone is 1.5 to 10 metres away and the extended zone is 10 to 30 metres away.

For starters, homeowners should ensure their yard features a 1.5-metre non-combustible surface along the outside of the house. This could be in the form of mineral soil, rock or concrete. 

The immediate zone should also be free of any sort of dry debris, such as leaves or needles. The idea is to have zero flammable materials along the immediate perimeter of the structure.  

Homeowners are also encouraged to make smart choices when it comes to vegetation management, especially in the immediate and intermediate zones. In particular, the program suggests that people consciously select fire-resistant plants to increase the odds of their home surviving a wildfire.

Fire-resistant plants typically have moist, supple leaves, accumulate minimal dead vegetation, and have a low amount of a water-like sap or resin.

It’s important to avoid highly flammable plants in the immediate and intermediate zones. These plants are defined as having aromatic leaves or needles leading to the accumulation of fine, dry, dead material. They contain resin or oils and have loose, papery or flaky bark.

Plants to avoid include cedar, pine and spruce trees, juniper bushes and tall grasses.

Lawns within 10 metres of a house should have grass no more than 10 centimetres in height. This will reduce the likelihood of your grass burning intensely.

Implementing the aforementioned FireSmart principles into your yard work can heavily reduce the risk of wildfire, with the measures within 10 metres of your home having the largest impact. 

In the extended zone, thinning and pruning evergreen trees reduces fire hazard. Branches, needles and dry grass may accumulate in this zone, so make sure to regularly tidy up this debris to remove potential surface fuels. 

 

 

Protecting your home

The FireSmart Begins at Home Guide lists a number of proactive home improvement measures one can take to reduce the risk of their home being set ablaze. 

People are encouraged to remove any combustible material from atop or underneath their decks. This may include leaves, pine needles, dead plants and other forms of debris, which can act as kindling for an approaching wildfire. This could also mean patio furniture, toys and decorations.

Cleaning the gutters and rooftop of leaves and debris is also a vital part of ensuring your home’s safety.

Homeowners can consider making a few home improvements to decrease wildfire risks. Embers can blow up to two kilometres ahead of a wildfire, so it’s important to take measures with this in mind to keep them out of your living space.

FireSmart recommends adding non-combustible three-millimetre screens to external vents, excluding dryer vents, to keep embers out. Doors leading into your home should be fire-rated and have a good seal, and single-pane windows should be replaced with more fire-resistant tempered or thermal windows.

Roofs and siding should be made of materials that offer fire resistance. Metal, asphalt, clay and composite rubber tiles offer superior fire resistance to untreated wood. Stucco, metal, brick, concrete or fibre cement siding are recommended over untreated wood or vinyl siding, which offers little fire protection.

The guide also recommends giving other structures on your property, such as sheds and outbuildings, the same considerations that you do with your living space to best prepare your property.

 

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Evacuation plan

Lastly, if you don’t have one already, have an evacuation plan in place. 

The measures noted above are intended to limit the risks of wildfires; however, they are not foolproof. In the event that a wildfire is closing in on your home, it is important to have a plan to ensure your safety and the safety of your loved ones.

To learn more about Alberta’s FireSmart program, or to download the FireSmart Begins at Home Guide, visit firesmartalberta.ca. General inquiries about the program can be directed to info@firesmartalberta.ca.

 

 

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