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Fort McMurray Wildfire: The Battle of Birchwood Trails

Heroic measures by Fort McMurray firefighters
WATCH ABOVE: The massive wildfire in Fort McMurray swept the headlines for weeks, now the tales of small victories are coming to light. Quinn Ohler reports on a group of firefighters and a red blanket that helped save a big part of the city.

EDMONTON – In the wake of the devastation in Fort McMurray, the story of small victories that made a big difference are starting to come to life.

A group of quick-thinking firefighters and a bright red blanket helped stop the Fort McMurray wildfire from spreading even deeper into the community. Fire officials said if the wildfire would have gotten into the Birchwood Trails, the fire would have splayed out and there would have been no stopping it.

The Birchwood Trails are located in the middle of Thickwood and Timberlea where nearly 60,000 residents live.
The Birchwood Trails are located in the middle of Thickwood and Timberlea where nearly 60,000 residents live. Global News

“The risk of Birchwood going up, I don’t know what the number would be for loss, it just wasn’t an option,” said the Assistant Deputy Chief of Operations for the Fort McMurray Fire Department, Jody Butz.

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Birchwood Trails is a wooded-area that stretches between Timberlea and Thickwood. Nearly 60,000 people live within the two communities. If the fire had gotten into those homes, Butz said it could have destroyed more than 60 percent of Fort McMurray.

“We were getting beat all over town, but we will not lose Birchwood Trails,” Butz said.

“We’re losing houses and losing houses and losing houses and we’re getting exhausted,” Butz said as he described what the first two days of the firefight were like. They needed a big win to boost the morale of the crew and to save a big part of the city.

Firefighters had been walking through the trails putting out hot spots when Butz called in for a preemptive air strike from bombers flying through the area. When he called them in, they only had enough fuel to make three passes over the trails.

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“You have to appreciate the anticipation of the guys on the ground. They’re fighting fire on the ground, looking up, praying for aerial support,” Butz said of the first flight past the trials by the tanker. They waited, but nothing.

The pilots then asked for a target. The firefighters took off their helmets and threw them into the trees hoping they would be noticeable enough for the pilots to spot them.

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They didn’t.

The second pass failed.

“This was it, this was do or die,” Butz said.” I threw the order out there. You NEED to create a target for these guys.”

Firefighters reached for something they carry with them on their truck all of the time. A bright red Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Emergency Services blanket.  They set it up about 300 yards into the trees at an angle and waited.

“The tanker drops started happening,” Butz said through a smile.

They were able to keep the fire out of the trails and Butz said it was thanks to the work of the firefighters, bombers and that red blanket.

Unfortunately, the red blanket was destroyed in the firefight.