But the two men remain humble, and say what they did was only one act in a long list of heroism displayed by first responders during that long and difficult week.
“That experience was surreal — when I got the phone call at my house and it was the prime minister’s switchboard asking if I could take a call from the prime minister,” said Capt. Kevin Corkum about Wednesday’s call.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later spoke of the firefighters’ humility to reporters during a news conference.
“They tried to shrug it off a little bit saying, ‘It’s just our job’ and ‘We’re just there to help people’ with the extraordinary modesty of heroes,” said Trudeau.
Corkum, and fellow Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency (HRFE) firefighter Conor Scott were stationed on the Hammonds Plains Road as lookouts on May 28 when the wildfires began.
The flames had already been spreading in the communities of Tantallon and Hammonds Plains, and there was a mad scramble as residents evacuated from their homes.
“The other fire units that were on that road had already had to abandon their posts due to the increased fire conditions,” recalled Corkum.
That’s when a 911 call came in from a family reporting they could not get an elderly man, who had dementia, out of the home.
The two firefighters said they needed to react quickly, and required the speed a fire engine could not offer. So, they jumped into their commander’s pick-up truck to help.
They didn’t even have their full gear on.
‘Driving through a wall of fire’
“Kev didn’t hesitate,” recalled Scott. “He knew exactly what he was going to do, and I was going to follow him no matter what.”
Scott said they began driving down Yankeetown Road, and while it was just light smoke at first, it soon “just went black.”
“All you could see was maybe a couple of feet in front of you. This is black smoke all around,” said Scott.
“There’s fire on both sides of the road and with the embers kind of flying across the road, it was essentially like we were just driving through a wall of fire.”
The smoke was so thick and visibility so poor, the two men rolled down their windows to try and find the curb as they drove.
When they arrived at the man’s house, Scott said he had to kick the door down. He found the man, “blissfully unaware to what was happening” sitting in the living room.
“I’ve had two grandparents that have had dementia, so I kind of recognized the signs right away that communication wasn’t going to be super useful in this instance, and I just tried to as calmly as I could get him to the doorway.”
What followed was what Scott described as “the scariest point”: getting from the house into the truck.
The fire had spread considerably and was now surrounding their vehicle.
“It was on all sides of us. The air was super hot. And in all your peripheral, all you see is just black smoke and flames. And we just want to get out of there and get him to safety.”
From there, it was a race to get back to the command centre. Scott admits the situation was “starting to get a bit dicey” and they had gotten out just in the nick of time.
“The moment that we were able to get him off the truck and pass him off to the unit that was there, just a brief moment of elation that I knew he was going to get to see his family again and his family was going to get to see him.”
‘Many heroic acts that day’
But they weren’t done. In fact, they worked another six to eight hours after that.
“We did what we did, but the calls kept coming,” said Corkum.
At that point, they were called back to the same road to check another home for someone who may have been trapped.
“We checked the house. We didn’t find anyone,” explained Corkum,
“Then on the way back out to the command post from that, we assisted another family with getting in their vehicle and and getting to where they had to go.”
It would be an arduous week for firefighters, and a painful one for residents of the communities. More than 16,400 residents were evacuated from the area. Some 200 structures — 150 of which were homes —were destroyed or damaged.
Corkum said the attention from the rescue has been “surreal” and while he’s not comfortable with all the accolades, he said he knew it was a “good news story” out of all the destruction and devastation.
“This was one small incident of that whole tragedy that happened that day,” he said.
“Everyone worked together from the dispatchers to HRFE resources, the police and even even the citizens all came together to make it the most successful outcome it could be — with no loss of life.“
Scott echoed that sentiment — saying while he’s honoured to be recognized and enjoyed speaking with the prime minister, many others deserve recognition too.
“There were so many heroic acts that day, just untold of the police and the medics and the fire and and everyone involved, all the support staff. It was absolutely incredible,” said Scott.
“This is just one story. And it’s a galvanizing story in a really terrible time, which is great. But there were so many heroic acts that day.”
— with files from Skye Bryden-Blom