Okanagan firefighters reflect on 9/11 losses against wildfire charred backdrop

Click to play video: 'Okanagan firefighters pay tribute to fallen comrades during 9/11 terrorist attacks and wildfire season'
Okanagan firefighters pay tribute to fallen comrades during 9/11 terrorist attacks and wildfire season
In Kelowna--firefighters from all over the Central Okanagan gathered at the base of Knox Mountain for a commemorative ceremony to honour the first responders who lost their lives that fateful day. But as Klaudia Van Emmerik reports, this year's event also paid special tribute to local firefighters who have been on the frontlines during the present wildfire season. – Sep 11, 2023

Firefighters across the Okanagan gathered in mourning Monday to remember the 343 first responders who died in New York City 22 years ago, in the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

It’s a ceremony they’ve held every 9/11 since 2001  but today’s events, held against a charred backdrop of communities so recently singed by wildfire battles, resonated a bit differently for many.

West Kelowna fire chief Jason Brolund remembers 9/11 as vividly as anyone else who lived through that day. Back in 2001, he’d only been in public service for five years said back then he couldn’t help but put himself in the shoes of his fellow firefighters in New York, and think about what they were going through.

Click to play video: 'Controlled burn above West Kelowna sparks panic on social media'
Controlled burn above West Kelowna sparks panic on social media

This year, however, as the leader of a team so young that many firefighters who were just toddlers at the time of that historic attack, the weight borne by chiefs 22 years ago is all too real.

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“I have a new understanding of what it means to put your people’s lives on the line, and how they’re willing to do it … but it’s a heavy burden,” Brolund said.

“It means far more to me now, knowing what those chief officers went through in New York City.”

Firefighters, he said, just want to help. It’s why they put on a uniform every day, he said, though it’s far from a shield.

“We have just been through hell here, our own kind of hell, and it’s good for us to put that in perspective,” Brolund told his fellow firefighters.

“I’m grateful that we didn’t lose any firefighters, but that’s not something that other departments were able to say and it’s important that we hold that in our hearts.”

Brolund put the two lives lost on the line for BC Wildfire Service front and centre during his address to his team.

Click to play video: '9/11 anniversary: Families, US officials remember those lost 22 years ago'
9/11 anniversary: Families, US officials remember those lost 22 years ago

On July 13, 19-year-old Devyn Gale was killed by a falling tree while working a fire near Revelstoke. Weeks later, Zak Muise was fighting the Donnie Creek wildfire near Fort St. John, B.C., when the UTV he was riding rolled over a steep drop on a gravel road. He was airlifted from the scene, but succumbed to his injuries shortly thereafter.

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“Take this moment to look inward, think about what we’ve been through and what our community has been through,” Brolund told his team.

“We know loss, we know what that feels like … I want you to think about how we support each other. I want you to keep having conversations. I want you to keep telling stories because there are 1,000 stories to tell about the last month here, but I want you to keep stay safe and take care of each other.”

That knowledge of battling together to protect their community is what bonds them locally and bonds them to the sacrifice paid by first responders in New York, who died more than two decades ago, climbing into a crumbling building with only a faint hope of survival.

“We share bonds with firefighters around the globe… the biggest thing is we know what it’s like to be committed to our community,” Brolund said.

“You guys and girls have demonstrated that in spades over the last month.”

In Kelowna hours later, numerous firefighters from departments across the region also paid homage to those who lost their lives in this year’s forest fires, and at 11 a.m. the public joined Okanagan first responders and watched a full honour guard and pipes and drum ceremony, followed by climbing up Knox Mountain Drive. First responders wore forestry gear to honour those who lost their lives this year in forest fire accidents and everyone who lost their lives on 9/11.

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Kelowna Fire Chief Travis Whiting said this year’s fires reminded everyone of the dangers posed on the front lines of fire.

“(Monday’s ceremony) is marking not just the 343 that were lost that day and the importance of recognizing that but the dangers that are faced by firefighters on an ongoing basis. This year you’ll look around and see everyone’s in wildland gear and that’s a result of the loss we saw with BC Wildfire this summer,” Whiting said.

“It hit us all deeply and reminded us that firefighting is a dangerous job, not just in the urban center, but also for our brothers and sisters whi are working in the wildland interface and that really came to bear over the last few weeks within this region.”


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