By Shari Narine
EAST PRAIRIE METIS SETTLEMENT, Alta.
As the wildfires continue to burn in British Columbia, Bruce Cunningham admits a part of him wishes he were on the frontline.
“I feel as if I’m missing out. Once you’re a firefighter you always feel you should be there helping out. It’s not just a job. It’s awesome. It’s like you’re a family out there,” he said.
Cunningham experienced that feeling first hand last year as a member of one of 161 Indigenous firetack crews that fought the fire in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Close to 90,000 people were evacuated from the region, including Fort McMurray. It would take a month before they could return and some neighbourhoods within Fort McMurray remained uninhabitable for months longer.
Cunningham, was on one of two firetack crews from East Prairie Metis Settlement, joined by four other firetack crews in his immediate area – two each from Driftpile First Nation and Gift Lake Metis Settlement – to be called out to Fort McMurray May 1, 2016.
He was there for 18 days. His eight-man crew worked on the frontlines of the fire, beginning each day early and then being called off the line by noon or 1 p.m. when the blaze could only be handled by helicopters and water bombers.
Cunningham says adrenaline was what kicked in when he was fighting the fire and not fear.
“We had flames and they were huge,” he said, but he was never scared because he felt comfortable with the 10-day training he received through Alberta Forestry. He felt that Alberta Forestry’s strategy to fight the Wood Buffalo fire was sound.
And he had faith in the people working around him.
“I knew what to expect and I knew I had my seven other crew members there with me if anything were to go wrong. It’s like a family and you all look out for each other. We had trust,” he said.
Today, he keeps track of the firefight in B.C. through television news and Facebook postings. Because of wet weather and lack of work last fall, Cunningham left the firetack crew to get employment as a Class 1 driver. Presently he’s working on Trans Canada’s natural gas pipeline expansion in Dawson Creek.