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The High Level Fire Department has responded to more than 300 calls this year.
But, as High Level Fire Chief Rodney Schmidt reminded a packed curling rink Saturday at the 53rd annual Firefighter’s Ball, it was one call in May that started the longest and most challenging response in High Level’s history – The Chuckegg Creek fire.
“We are here tonight to celebrate your success,” Schmidt said.
“Success doesn’t come easy. It comes from hard work, treating each other like family, setting aside our differences, and looking at the bigger picture – the common good. You did just that, and I encourage all of you to look back on what you accomplished as a team.
“Our community is still here. The Chuckegg Creek fire, while still out there, no longer poses a threat to the town of High Level. It is because of your efforts, your preparation, and your commitment to that common good that we are all still here.”
The Firefighter’s Ball was an evening to say thank you to the fire department, as well as nearly 40 fire departments from across the province, and the countless government agencies, businesses, and community volunteers who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the fire department and kept the town safe.
“When disaster strikes, our community relies on those brave volunteers who put themselves in harm’s way to protect their neighbours and their communities,” said Mayor Crystal McAteer during her speech, referring specifically to the HLFD.
“Most of us are guilty – myself included – of not taking the time to show appreciation and thank you to the brave men and women that you are. We just don’t realize until it is our house burning that you are running into, or it is our loved ones you are tending to after an accident, or our community that you are protecting.”
Town CAO Clark McAskile referred to the Chuckegg Creek fire as “a monster that rose from the marsh” that came to the doorstep of High Level.
“In May of this year, a monster came to visit our community,” he said. “It was not a monster of metaphor, or a monster under your childhood bed. This monster was real. (The monster) was a wildfire intent only on consuming anything and everything in its path.”
On May 29, the Chuckegg Creek fire moved south, burning homes and changing Paddle Prairie forever. Many of the firefighters who went to fight the fire in Paddle Prairie were from High Level, who, along with dedicated local volunteers, put their lives at risk to save that community.
“While 16 homes were lost, over 100 were saved,” said Schmidt.
“You, along with that group of community members, saved that community. While there are those who think otherwise, you were the difference between losing some homes, and losing an entire community. You stood your ground, and you made a difference.”
Chris Warkentin, incumbent MP for Grande Prairie-Mackenzie, said the fire strengthened the bonds of the community.
“The fact that is you are in a community that is stronger and more united because of what it has come through in the last year,” he said. “I want to thank each and every member of the fire department that dedicated itself to ensuring that this community was able to rest assured this town was in good hands.”
Dan Williams, MLA for Peace River, told those in attendance the battle the firefighters faced was one for land.
“You are fighting for a piece of land that you stand on, to protect your industries, to protect your families, to protect your homes, and to protect the livelihood and the way of life that we have in northern Alberta,” he said.
Walter Sarapuk, Deputy Reeve for Mackenzie County, said the fire brought out the true spirit in the fire departments who fought it.
“This past summer has shown the true spirit and dedication of the High Level Fire Department, as well as all the other departments in the region,” he said. “The cooperation between all these fire departments make this region stronger and safer.”
McAteer said while the community may sometimes take their service for granted, HLFD members were heroes.
“It’s easy for me and the rest of us to be consumed by our very busy lives, and take what you do for granted,” she said. “The sleepless nights, the missed meals, and the times away from your families. We just expect you will be there when we need you.
“You have missed numerous family events and numerous anniversaries. You have volunteered in addition to doing your day job. You have juggled numerous hats to serve your community, and every one of you is priceless.
“From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for being there in our time of greatest need. During Chuckegg, I watched you, and you all distinguished yourselves.”
Schmidt said the fire department will be forever changed by the events of summer, 2019.
“My challenge to you is to take what we have learned and apply it,” he said. “Look at what we accomplished, and be proud of it. Look at what didn’t go right, and learn from it. Focus on the job we signed up for – protecting our community. Because that is what you did, and that is what we will continue to do. Service above self is the mantra of the fire service, and that is what you demonstrated and will continue to do just that.”
McAskile said the monster that was the Chuckegg Creek fire lived only to consume and grow.
“The monster didn’t care that we were in its way,” he said. “It didn’t care about our hopes, our dreams, or our plans; that beast threatened our community with only the need to eat and grow.
“You, and a lot of others who could not be with us tonight, stood with us to look that beast in the eye. And when we invited that monster to our doorstep, you kicked its ass.”
Schmidt also thanked all the fire departments and management organizations involved in battling the fire, as well as High Level residents and those in neighbouring communities who also stayed to help.
“Thank you for what you did,” he said. “This is a community success, and we should never forget that.”