Bruce McAslan retired nearly 12 years ago from the Calgary Fire Department after 22 years with the CFD.
He and his wife built a home in the community of Bermagui in New South Wales. But they were forced from their home on Thursday, Jan. 2 when flames were forecasted to rip through Bermagui.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. Can you imagine Armageddon?” McAslan said in a phone interview. “Our property is subject to ember attack.
“When people think of embers, they think of small bits of flaming debris. But the embers we get out of these kind of bushfires are like softballs and they come flying in from kilometres away from gum trees exploding, basically, and being carried on the wind.”
An unexpected change in the direction of wind gusts kept the fire away from their community, but McAslan said it is difficult to remain outside for any length of time because of the amount of ash in the air.
“It’s unbelievable. You cannot even imagine it, the amount of ash in the air,” he said.
“I looked up at the street lights and it was like being in a blizzard. The amount of ash that looks just like snow. It’s like being back in Calgary during the blizzard. You can’t breathe. You have to have a mask on.”
McAslan and his wife fled their home with a handful of possessions: some documents, small mementos, a few clothes, a pillow and a blanket.
“The car is fairly full of stuff, and then having to sleep on top of that, it’s pretty interesting,” McAslan said.
Fortunately, a friend from Bermagui happened to have a camper to loan to McAslan, so the couple considers themselves lucky to have that accommodation because emergency operations centres are busy.
“We were planning on sleeping in the car because there’s so little accommodations and the evacuation centres are just chockablock full. At times, you just sleep wherever you can find a spot to lay your head,” McAslan said.
‘On deck all the time’
He is now putting his years of expertise as a first responder in Calgary to use by helping fire victims in Australia. He is volunteering with Surf Lifesaving, operating Zodiac-like crafts along the coast to shuttle evacuees to safety.
“We can shuttle people from beaches and safe spots to the bigger boats. People go to the beach because it’s a safe haven if their house or their town is burning, and if they need rescuing off the beach, that’s what we do,” McAslan said.
After days of helping fellow evacuees at the evacuation centers, McAslan said the toughest part has been comforting the people who are feeling severe emotional distress.
“I am hearing on the two-way radio people who are right in the middle of the fire and they are stressed and that’s hard to listen to. Their lives are in danger,” McAslan said.
“All of your training and dealing with other people’s disaster, it doesn’t stop you from having emotional feelings about this. And you get tired too. You are on deck all the time, and it goes on and on and on, and the wind just keeps changing and driving the fire to somewhere new. It is emotionally draining.”
McAslan said he is thankful for Canadian firefighters travelling to Australia, adding that their skills used in fighting forest fires like in Fort McMurray will definitely help in New South Wales. He said the only difference is that the eucalyptus trees burn hotter than pine and spruce.
“The fire creates its own weather system so wind can change very quickly as the fire flashes over people — very, very dangerous work. We are just so appreciative because I don’t think there’s been anything of this magnitude in the world.”
Another thing McAslan is thankful for is the weather. A downpour on Monday has dampened some of the forest fuel.
Electricity is still not expected to be restored to Bermagui until at least Wednesday. Hot, dry weather is forecasted for the end of the week but McAslan said he has been told by officials that the intensity of the fires will be greatly reduced.