Part 1: The Importance of Being Prepared -

An Interview with Fire Chief Jody Butz

With forestry season kicking off this month, WFR’s Ashley Cameron had the chance to speak with Fire Chief Jody Butz, of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, about the historic 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, aptly nicknamed “The Beast”, and the importance of being prepared.

WFR: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today and I want to first congratulate you on your new appointment of Chief! Based on your panel discussion at the Alberta Industrial Fire Emergency Management Association (AIFEMA) meeting last September, it was apparent that with a wildfire of that magnitude [in Fort McMurray last year], there is absolutely no way to prepare for something like that. However, having been on the front lines of one of the largest wildfires in Canadian history, I’d like to tap into your expertise not about necessarily the event itself, but about forestry season and wildfires in general. What did you & your team learn from last year’s wildfire?

Chief Butz: Municipal fire department business models are built around structural firefighting. Some of the cities, towns and municipalities, such as Fort McMurray and other communities out there, are in forested areas. We’re surrounded by the boreal forest. My message to those departments is when you’re faced with that wildland urban interface piece, you really need to change your tactics. When you respond to a structural fire, you lay down your hose, you begin attacking the fire, and throughout the course of the incident you’re basically stationary. In a wildfire scenario, you cannot be stationary because the dynamic and complexity of the fire changes very quickly. You need to be in more of a pump and roll. You need to pump water and move, pump water and move, pump water and move. You’ve got to be mobile and that is one of the things we figured out right away and had to adjust our tactics on the fly.

WFR: Was your department more used to the strategy of structural firefighting rather than wildfire, when having to come up with some of those tactics you mentioned?

Chief Butz: Yes, absolutely. Our guys are trained and wildland certified; it’s normal business for us in the spring time to put out grass fires & bush fires because we’re surrounded by the trees. But we had never faced the scale and the size of this wildfire when it encroached into that urban interface piece. It was just so large and it hit us on multiple different points all at once, so it spread out our resources. I wouldn’t say we weren’t used to it but we certainly had to adapt quickly to adjust to it. There’s an untold story here: you can measure all of the damage, it’s pretty well documented out there, but you can never measure how much was saved. When you hear the stories that are told here amongst us, some of the guys were fighting fire without water. They were fighting fire without hose. For example, they had a wet mop or they found an extinguisher. One group actually cut down a fence so that it wouldn’t keep spreading down the fence and onto a house. You had to be very flexible and show a lot of initiative and be adaptable to the situation. That’s kind of what got us through.

WFR: So not necessarily conventional tools – you had to think outside the box.

Chief Butz: Yes, for sure. So with municipal firefighting, your 38mm, 65mm and high volume hose are not the tools for a wildland fire. You need to have that portable pump. You need to be able to carry water with you. You need to be able to deploy your hose and rack your hose really quickly because you have to take it with you. If you drop your hose and leave it there, and then go on to the next thing, you’re going to run out of hose; and we did, in some cases. Mobility is critical in a wildland urban interface piece. Municipal departments can become adaptable; we sure did on the fly. For municipalities in those forested areas, when you’re in discussions and planning stages for equipment & truck purchases, I would highly recommend they consider that [the adaptability to be able to be mobile in a wildland urban interface type scenario].

WFR: What advice you would give to other fire departments that are currently in the midst and/or getting ready for forestry season?

Chief Butz: There’s a multi-layered answer to that question:

  1. The number one thing is attitude. Don’t be complacent when it comes to your organizational attitude towards the wildland urban interface. The “it’ll never happen to me” and the “that couldn’t happen here” mindset – well I’m here to tell you that we evacuated 80,000-90,000 people. An entire city. And were faced with the largest wildfire to hit an urban interface that Canada’s ever seen. So that’s step one. Once you get past that, it will motivate and drive the planning phases.
  2. From a public safety perspective, make sure your citizens are informed. Don’t underestimate or don’t oversee the fact that an evacuation plan, and I’m sure most towns and communities have one, is only as good as the citizens it serves. When I say that, I’m saying that from a preparedness perspective. You can issue an evacuation but if the citizens are not informed or prepared, it really puts the accountability on each individual citizen. It comes down to the fire departments and city administration to really communicate with the citizens of their community to inform them about preparedness. They need to be ready to look after themselves, their families and their pets, on short notice; and to be plugged in to your surroundings in those times.
  3. The third piece is making sure you have a plan and making sure everybody understands the plan. In the fire industry, we’re all a pretty close knit group and I mean that from fire department to fire department. At the end of the day we’re all firefighters and we’re all here for public safety. We sure saw it with the amount of help that came our way. Don’t be scared to ask for that help and ask for it early. Everyday we respond to alarms calls and most times it ends up being nothing, and that’s a good thing. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, you’re not alone out there.

WFR: To spiral off of what you just said, the second part being planning, communication, etc. You mentioned in your panel discussion the importance of social media use for fire departments…

Chief Butz: So that’s part of the plan of informing your citizens. You need a communication plan and I think it would be foolish not to incorporate social media into that. It’s a quick, easy way to communicate factual information to a broad audience. Part of preparedness is making sure you’re prepared, but also making sure you’re doing your part on talking to each individual citizen and being plugged in to that information. It does take a lot of work, but it’s critical. When everybody’s on the same page, from the city administration to the fire department and its citizens, then you can all go in the same direction.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Click here to read the conclusion of "The Importance of Being Prepared - An Interview with Fire Chief Jody Butz".

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