Thursday, 15 January 2015

It's 3:30 AM

It's 3:30 am when the town fire siren starts its relentless wail. My roomate Liz and I leap into clothes and start running towards the fire hall. I's colder than -20 and we know it will be faster to run than to start the car.  My lungs are seizing up as we run the three blocks, the clunky plastic case housing the Fire Department camera and lenses banging against my leg. 

We enter the hall where the other guys are donning their gear. "Holy shit," says Liz. I think she is just talking about the cold. It's not until we're hanging off the back of the truck racing to our destination that I think to ask, "Where's the fire?"  "The arena," the guys say, "That's what was on the blackboard." Holy shit indeed. Suddenly the adrenalin rush is accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The massive arena is the heart of the community.

We pull into the parking lot in front of the Sexsmith Arena. Flames are already licking through the roof.  We toss the hoses off the deck of the truck and start connecting them to the hydrant. Someone unlocks the front door and two guys enter, probably Keith and Dave. Flames leap up with the introduction of oxygen and the guys are out and running almost immediately.

Damage control
I stand around like an idiot, no doubt the least trained and most useless member of the volunteer department. Chief Pearcy, also the high school biology teacher, says to start taking pictures, so in my role as Communications Officer, I snap a bunch of pictures. Pearcy tells me later that the insurance company found them very useful.

Fully involved
It soon becomes apparent there will be no winning this battle. The standpipe on the nearby elementary school is either frozen or unable to supply adequate pressure so we run hoses all the way from the high school to the arena. The guys keep pouring water on the blaze and soon decide they need to protect the school so they dump water on it too. The school is safe but it's not long before the arena's roof collapses and there's nothing left to do but damage control.

These are my memories of the fire that destroyed the Sexsmith Arena. As it turns out, it was the school janitor who called in the blaze after spotting sparks coming out of the roof on his way home from work. I'm not sure they ever determined the cause of the fire, some say a cigarette butted out in a knothole in the dressing room after an oldtimer's game. The place was under-insured and it took years for a new facility to be built. 

I was reminded of my days on the Sexsmith Fire Department when I looked at photos of the Sexsmith grain elevator burning down a couple of days ago, captured by William Vavrek.  Despite the power of that fire, the firefighters were able to contain the blaze and prevent its spread to the neigbouring grain elevators, landmarks of the small prairie town.

Kudos to you, firefighters of Alberta!

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