Firefighters and emergency personnel have come from across the country to battle the wildfire in Fort McMurray, in what has quickly become a national tragedy with a national response.
But for the firefighters who call Fort McMurray home, battling this blaze is a far more personal affair – as is the case for firefighter Mark Stephenson, who watched as the fire consumed his own home.
Stephenson, 43, and his crew were deployed to the neighbourhood of Abasand on May 3 as the disaster was just unfolding. At first they were forced to retreat after discovering the fire hydrants no longer worked. A short time later the crew returned again in an attempt to halt the fire’s spread.
Watch below: Fort McMurray Fire Department firefighter Mark Stephenson shares his experience of seeing his home burn
Stephenson says that by the time he arrived it was too late to do anything about his home.
“It was already fully engulfed when we got there; it was already past even attempting [a rescue],” Stephenson said.
So he asked his captain for permission to shoot a quick video to send to his wife Kayla and three children, who had already fled to Edmonton.
“I’m glad you guys got out of there,” Stephenson can be heard telling his family as he shot the video for them.
And then, like a doctor performing triage, Stephenson got back to work on the houses he could still save.
“My captain came up to me and said, ‘You all right? You need some time?’ I’m like, ‘No, everything’s burned. It’s gone. It’s just stuff … let’s go to work.’” Stephenson said.
Originally hailing from Collingwood, Ont., Stephenson is a former member of the Canadian Forces who served overseas in Kosovo. He has been a member of the Fort McMurray Fire Department for the past eight years.
Once the fire moved past his neighbourhood, Stephenson returned to the charred remains of his home to see what could be salvaged.
He was able to recover two items of sentimental importance: a ceremonial sword he received for his service overseas, and his son’s piggybank, somehow preserved under a piece of drywall.
Despite his loss and the exhausting week he and other firefighters have endured, Stephenson says he has no plans to pick up roots.
“I’m not leaving Fort McMurray. I’m a Fort McMurray firefighter,” Stephenson said Tuesday while helping clean up one of the city’s fire halls.
“I love this place. I plan on staying.”
Like so many families, Stephenson’s lost almost everything in the fire. A GoFundMe page has been set up by his brother Justin Frye for anyone looking to help get the Fort McMurray firefighter and his family back on their feet.
-With files from (and deepest thanks to) the Canadian Press