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‘These guys are working around the clock’: Alberta firefighters share what it’s like in Fort McMurray

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire: Group of Edmonton firefighters return home from battling blaze' Fort McMurray wildfire: Group of Edmonton firefighters return home from battling blaze
WATCH ABOVE: With the Fort McMurray wildfire burning for nearly seven days now, firefighters from across the province have been called in to help. They've all been working tirelessly to save what they can. One group of Edmonton firefighters has returned home. Quinn Ohler caught up with them – May 7, 2016

EDMONTON – Tired and weary, the first group of Edmonton firefighters returned home Friday from the front lines of the firefight in Fort McMurray.

” {It was} Apocalyptic, cars stranded on the sides of highways, fires burning on either side of the road, smoke everywhere,” Travis Watt described. The Edmonton firefighter was one of several that returned home early Friday morning.

Watt described the immediate sense of empathy he felt for fellow Fort McMurray firefighters.

“These guys worked days on end, some of them lost their own houses,” Watt said. “Their families evacuated and they stayed and fought and protected their city as best they could and anytime we saw them they still had smiles on their face and joked around– but you could just see it in their eyes– they were exhausted.”

The crew Watt was with was one of several tasked with protecting homes in neighbourhoods across Fort McMurray.

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“Basically {we} set up a wall with firefighters, and sprayed as much water as we could get out of the hydrants, and held the fires back”

Watch below: Aerial footage shows the devastation in Fort McMurray’s Abasand and Beacon Hill neighbourhoods

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire: Aerial footage of the destruction in Abasand and Beacon Hill' Fort McMurray wildfire: Aerial footage of the destruction in Abasand and Beacon Hill
Fort McMurray wildfire: Aerial footage of the destruction in Abasand and Beacon Hill – May 7, 2016

The team worked with fire crews from Airdrie, Strathcona County, St. Albert, Calgary and Syncrude.

“The neighbourhoods that we were sent to– they were big– the houses the next day we were told that they were all still standing and that they were in no immediate threat. We’ve received messages from people who said their houses are still standing where we were– so as far as we know– they job was completed and successful,” Watt said.

Watt was one of 16 firefighters on four trucks sent to Fort McMurray this week.

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He said his crew “essentially went until we couldn’t go anymore.”

The firefighters would rest for two to three hours at a time on the floor of the local fire hall.

“No one wanted to rest,” Watt said. “Every time we completed a task guys were saying where are we going next and the most frustrating thing was just waiting for that next task.”

READ MORE: Image of firefighters resting after saving homes in Fort McMurray goes viral

Watt also sent out a thank you to the community and Albertans at large who have showed so much support.

“The support up there has been amazing,” Watt said. Fire crews drove up to Fort McMurray flanked by a police escort. “We had fuel trucks with us at all times, mechanics watching the trucks, toothbrushes, water, gatorade, toiletries.”

He noted a group of motorcyclists that travelled from Grande Prairie with several truckloads of food and supplies for first responders and anyone else who was in need.

“They actually gave us our first hot cup of coffee in close to two days,” Watt said. “That was the best cup of coffee we ever had– we wanted to send thanks to them. She was making everyone sandwiches– they took money out of their own pockets just to help us so it was pretty special.”

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Choking back tears, Watt described a sense of emptiness upon returning home Friday.

“It felt empty. There’s a part of us that just really wanted to keep helping,” Watt said.

There are currently 36 Edmonton firefighters in Fort McMurray.

“I think all of us wanted to be back and do whatever we could and there’s guys that are saying we want to be back up there right now– it’s just part of that brotherhood, that sisterhood of the fire department– we want to be there helping our fellow firefighters.”

Watt said the crew he worked with never felt like they were in danger, although at times they did suit up in full firefighting gear because of the thick smoke.

“There’s a couple of times we were just awed by Mother Nature and the power of this thing,” Watt said.

“We’ve done structure fires and stuff like this before– but this is a whole different ball game,” Sheldon Dombowsky said. The firefighter from Smoky Lake was on his way home Saturday morning when he stopped to speak with Global News crews.

“It’s pretty crazy out there,” Dombowsky said. Exhausted after several days on shift with little sleep, the firefighter was often at a loss for words to described the enormity of the situation in Fort McMurray.

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“The guys are working around the clock,” Dombowsky said. “Get a little bit of grub in ya’ and you’re off to the races.” he described.

“I don’t think we’re going to see too many more structure fires– we hope– I think it’s going to be more into a wild land situation but as long as the boys keep doing what they’re doing we should be able to get this thing f**king contained.”

Seven firefighters take a break after battling the wildfire in Fort McMurray. (Strathcona County Emergency Services/Facebook)

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