07/14/2013 07:00 EDT | Updated 09/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Lac-Megantic Disaster A 'Colossal Task' For Firefighters (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

In his many years as a firefighter, the largest blaze Lt. Tim Harvey had ever faced consisted of three simultaneously burning buildings.

But that experience hardly compared to what the 16-year American firefighting veteran witnessed last weekend as he rushed across the border to help colleagues in Quebec.

"That was nothing more than a campfire compared to this," he said, describing the torched downtown core that sizzled before him as he arrived in Lac-Megantic.

At 4:33 a.m. his home station in Farmington, Maine, had received a call for help.

It immediately dispatched seven officers, a firetruck, and a pickup, across the border to serve as backup.

Harvey was impressed by how much the local fire department had already managed to control and accomplish by the time he and his team arrived.

The squad from Maine joined the efforts of over 200 other firefighters who were called in from nearby towns to support the devastated municipality following Saturday's explosions.

Stephane Simoneau works out of the fire department in Sherbrooke. He's been helping to organize the deployment of equipment and personnel to the scene.

"We've had to ask for help from other towns to supply fire services, but also to help with the search of victims," he said.

"It's a colossal task — something that a group of 30-some-odd volunteer firefighters (in Lac-Megantic) can't be expected to take on solo."

The initial mission was accomplished by the following afternoon.

Although explosions erupted until 4 a.m. on the night of the derailment, the blaze was officially announced to have been contained later in the day.

There were later reports that the Lac-Megantic fire team had been taken off the case to properly grieve, but Simoneau said many have remained available to serve.

For anyone seeking psychological help, it is ready and available in Lac-Megantic.

He says there has been no shortage of people and equipment available to the town, especially since the disaster zone officially became a crime scene.

With the criminal investigation underway, firefighters' presence has been scaled back. Police confirm they've asked fire crews to back off to protect potential evidence.

The police force says firefighters still have an important responsibility.

"Firefighters are responsible for the security of everyone on the scene," said police spokesman Sgt. Benoit Richard. "That is the main thing."

It's more of a support role now, though.

"We've asked firefighters, with their permission, to remain outside of our work area," he said. "But if they find any problems they can come back."

Despite so much sorrow in a town where 50 are feared to have died, there is also pride in the work firefighters did.

Jacques Proteau calls it "exceptional."

The director general of the Quebec National Firefighters' Academy — a firefighter himself for 35 years — repeatedly used that word to describe the ongoing response in Lac-Megantic.

"This is the type of event that will only happen once in a career," he said, fumbling as he searched for words to describe the disaster.

"This is unprecedented."

The magnitude of the fire, and what he considers the impressive handling of it, has Proteau taking note as he prepares to train future generations of firefighters.

"There are going to be conferences, post-mortems, detailed retrospective analyses, and we are going to draw conclusions about what happened in Lac-Megantic," he said. "Based on those conclusions, if our programs need to be adjusted or improved, I assure you, they will be."

Proteau says that while he hasn't been on the ground in Lac-Megantic to witness the effort, from what he's seen and heard the firefighters handled it remarkably.

When trying to put the disaster in context, he managed to liken it to only one historical event he could recall, an incident more than three decades ago.

In 1979, a 106-car train filled with chemicals — both explosive and poisonous — derailed in Mississauga, Ont., forcing the evacuation of over 200,000 people.

Flames sprawled across 1.5 kilometres, but miraculously no one was killed and only a few buildings were destroyed.

"That's the only other derailment requiring a deployment like this," Proteau said.

To his knowledge, no firefighters have been injured in Lac-Megantic.

Which, he says, speaks to the quality of the leadership that must have been present.

"We aren't talking about taming a flaming barbecue," he said. "We are talking about dealing with thousands and thousands of degrees that were actively triggering explosions."

He acknowledged the extreme emotional intensity of a small community team having to respond in a tragedy in their hometown where — unlike in a large urban centre — they almost undoubtedly personally knew some, or many, of the victims that had perished.

"So, it's incredible what they were able to do, considering the context they were working in," he said.

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