MEDICINE HAT, Alta. — There are small teams of Alberta firefighters travelling to Fort McMurray who aren't on the front lines of the wildfire that's been threatening the city, but are instead helping by listening to those who are.
Patrick Jerome, a Medicine Hat firefighter, is a member of his department's Critical Incident Stress Management Team that recently travelled to Fort McMurray to assist crews deal with the mental effects of fighting such a large fire, which forced the evacuation of the city.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a known side-effect of emergency service work such as firefighting, and it's something that teams like the one Jerome is on work to prevent.
"The fires that those guys fought is a lifetime of fires for a firefighter. It's just so much firefighting that they've done in so little time," said Jerome, speaking from Medicine Hat.
"It's just so much. I can't believe what those guys went through."
The four-member Medicine Hat team, which includes their chaplain, aren't mental health professionals but are trained in managing stress and draw from their own experiences.
While they were in Fort McMurray, they bunked on cots in the local college and met with firefighters, many of whom spent long hours defending Fort McMurray's neighbourhoods earlier this month.
Jerome said all fires are hard work, but the firefighters battling the Fort McMurray blaze faced unique stress. The fire was so large and they went days without sleep. In some cases, the had to worry about their own homes and families.
Firefighters run off adrenaline in those situations, Jerome explained, and when it's over, they can plunge into lows.
Negativity sometimes sets in.
"I know for myself and other guys, we always look at bettering ourselves, so when we do fight a fire we always go back and critique the fire. You say, 'Geez, I wish I would have done this because I maybe could have saved that,'" Jerome said.
"Regret sets in and stuff like that. So it's important for the guys to know and emphasize that they saved 90 per cent of the city."
Jerome said firefighters don't always like to talk about their feelings, so the discussions are called "peer-to-peer" rather than stress management.
Other departments also have teams. The Medicine Hat group replaced one from Lethbridge, Jerome said, and there was another one from Edmonton there at the same time.
It's all voluntary. Nobody is made to go. The firefighters don't even have to talk if they don't want to. Jerome said it's like visiting your neighbour and having a coffee and chatting.
"We know how hard it is to do what they have done. A house fire — a normal one that doesn't spread, just one house — is hours of work. It's hard work. I can't imagine having to do the whole block, the whole neighbourhood," he said.
"A firefighter will understand the amount of work that those guys put in. So them telling us, another firefighter, it's so much easier to talk to because we get it."
Jerome said he told the firefighters in Fort McMurray how amazed he was that they managed to save one of their fire halls, where the grass next to it was black and the forest across the highway was burned.
"It's good for them to see what they've done good, you know, in such destruction around them."
—by Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton