A documentary released Wednesday includes never-before-seen video and photos of the heroic efforts displayed by RCMP members during the Fort McMurray wildfire.
Footage captured by an RCMP videographer starting on May 4, 2016, combined with video from cameras mounted on RCMP vehicles during the May 3 evacuation, make up the 14-minute documentary.
The film, called Boots on the Ground: Nature of the Beast, was produced by Alberta RCMP.
RCMP Sgt. Jack Poitras says the footage is “compelling.”
“I think the public would like to see what the event was like from the members’ point of view,” he said. “It gives you a whole new perspective on their dedication.”
In a news release, the RCMP said the video “captures breathtaking… images and footage of the fire’s devastation and the brave men and women who remained on duty to ensure the safety of Fort McMurray residents.”
Poitras says the video from the dashcams is time-stamped and there’s a moment that captures the exact turning point in the emergency.
“It was 3:30… and it goes from clear as day to when you can’t see anything at all.”
The documentary was made public exactly one year after the wildfire forced 88,000 people out of the region.
“Most people were fairly calm when you spoke to them,” Wood Buffalo RCMP Sgt. Jonathan Baltzer says in the film. “And if you looked in their eyes, they weren’t.”
“I have so much respect for the work that our employees put in during the Wood Buffalo wildfires,” said Deputy Commissioner Todd Shean, commanding officer of K Division. “They worked tirelessly to ensure the safe evacuation of the residents.”
“Our job is to protect and preserve life, first and foremost,” Baltzer said.
Poitras said about 140 RCMP officers were stationed at the Wood Buffalo detachment when the fire hit.
Instead of fleeing or trying to protect their own homes, members got to work in the region, many of them directing traffic during the mass exodus. Many officers worked 72 hours straight; others even longer. Fifteen officers lost their homes in the fire.
“Everybody called it ‘The Beast’ because it was so out of control, it was so unpredictable,” Baltzer said. “You look at the aftermath of it and it just seemed fickle. It would pick off two dozen houses and it would leave three. They would be untouched and then on the other side there would be another two dozen houses gone.
“It almost seemed taunting. And anything that’s that dangerous to begin with, that seems to be able to have a mind of its own… to just flaunt its power, almost, saying: ‘I’m going to do this and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ we should have been terrified.
“We should have been absolutely terrified. But we had a job to do.”
RCMP officers ran door to door through the smoke, making sure neighbourhoods were evacuated. They gave rides to people who needed help getting out, including a woman confined to a wheelchair whose home later burned to the ground.
“It’s very emotional,” said Wood Buffalo RCMP Supt. Lorna Dicks, who was interviewed for the documentary. “I look at that video… and just the pride I have in all the RCMP officers that responded that day. They put themselves in the middle of the fire, they put their lives on the line and put everything at risk to get the community out.
“The incredible amount of pride I feel for those first res ponders, it overwhelms me.”
Watch below: The RCMP in charge of the Wood Buffalo detachment on May 3, 2016 opens up about that day
“While the detachment didn’t burn, we lost access to both police stations up there,” Poitras said, adding they had to set up a mobile command post. That, and the remote location of Fort McMurray, compounded the challenge.
“If you run out of supplies, where do you go?
“You realize that in some other incidents that we’ve had… you have cities around you you can go to,” Poitras said.
“It was quite a logistical feat.”
In the days that followed, Wood Buffalo RCMP received support from several detachments across Alberta, B.C. and the Maritimes.
During the next few weeks, RCMP secured the evacuated areas, assisted with animal rescues and continued to escort residents from camps north of the city. Then, in June, the RCMP worked with the municipality on the phased re-entry plan.