Ring Of Fire

What on earth compels 21 dudes with day jobs to rush into burning buildings?

In fact, most of the Pass’ emblematic historical events end on a dark note. Like the Hillcrest mine explosion that buried 189 coal miners alive in 1914, the worst mining disaster in Canadian history. Or the 2003 Lost Creek fire, a blaze that devoured 190 square kilometres of forest and threatened the towns with imminent destruction. Then there’s the wind. It whistles through the mountains like a barrage of angry ghosts. Averaging more than 20 kilometres an hour, the strongest in the province, that wind fanned the Lost Creek flames, carrying burning embers across wide fire breaks into more tinder-dry forest. When the wind comes up, I’ve heard Rocket joke, the suicide rate goes up. He’s only half kidding. Others, like Aschacher’s mom, Yvonne, complain of intense migraines when it’s blowing.

As we turn off Highway 22 and drive west on Highway 3 towards Bellevue, a gust hits us. “Feel that?” Darren asks. “The wind doesn’t want us.”

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We pass a scene of Pompeian proportions, the Frank Slide. In 1903, the east face of Turtle Mountain collapsed onto the town. It was 4:10 a.m. Residents had no warning. In 90 seconds the boulders covered them. Coal mining had weakened an already unstable mountain. Roughly 100 people were caught in the slide.

We gaze in silence at the broken rock that remains strewn on both sides of the highway. The sharpened face of Turtle Mountain looms above us. A reminder of how nature, when it fights back, fights back hard. Imagine the irony. The men of Frank had hollowed out that mountain: Lilliputians slowly butchering the groaning Gulliver, at whose feet and on whose mercy they existed.

Rocket opens the door of the Launch Pad with a big grin. This 1,000-square-foot home, which he bought for $74,000 at the beginning of the decade, is worth $200,000 today. Housing prices have doubled and even tripled here in the last few years. The Pass has some of the last available mountain property in the Alberta Rockies outside the protected parks.

Most houses here are bungalows. A few are painted brightly in arresting shades of purple and green. Others are trailers, augmented with additional rooms and garages. The next decade will see transformation. The Pass is poised to become another Canmore, a weekend home to thousands of wealthy urbanites who want to wake up to a mountain view and a short drive to the ski hills. Thirteen new developments are under construction. The largest is Bridgegate, set to open in 2010. The $1.8 billion, 26-acre luxury resort will be a town unto itself with a five-star hotel, 2,000 condos, a spa, casino and shops. Visitors will have artisan brew pubs and boutique restaurants. They might never see the inside of the Green Hill.

But that’s where we head from the Launch Pad, to reminisce, plug the jukebox and down a few beers. Rocket tells me about his work in the mines across the border in B.C., which employ 20 per cent of the Pass’ population. They’re open-pit mines, a safer alternative to the treacherous underground room-and-pillar systems of the past. He operates a backhoe that shaves off rock to expose the coal before a loader scoops the deposit into the same type of monster dump trucks used to haul bitumen in the oilsands.

A couple hours later, Aschacher and I climb into a cab to get to his mom’s house in Coleman. The driver glances once, twice in the rear-view mirror before tilting it for a better look. “Is that Darren Aschacher?” she asks.

“Ye-es,” he says tentatively. She turns to flash him a smile and he recognizes the familiar face.

“Congratulations on the baby.”

Gerald Coccioloni is a captain on the Blairmore Fire Department. He’s also Aschacher’s uncle. “Cutch,” as he’s known, is a no-nonsense guy with a gift for understanding the intricacies of fire. He’s got a moustache like a cop, salt-and-pepper hair, a heavy build. At 50, he’s the eldest member of the fire department.

It’s Saturday afternoon at the Blairmore fire hall. That morning, Aschacher and his friend Gord Yanota took off with a case of beer to put on Yanota’s storm windows. Now Rocket and I are sitting at the controls of a parked fire engine. Cutch is standing outside the open door.

The last time I was in this hall was after a concert by the Vaudeville Rant, Aschacher, Yanota and Rocket’s old band. The musicians gave Aschacher’s Edmonton friends the tour. We slid down the pole, tried on helmets, took our pictures at the wheel of the fire truck and pretended to make out with the CPR dummy. “Some of the guys used to come here after the bar,” Cutch tells me. “Now that’s against the rules. Even if you want to host a children’s birthday party here, it has to be approved.” Rocket and I exchange a look.

There are 21 guys on the fire department, ranging in age from 18 to Cutch. They’re volunteers with other commitments and full-time jobs as miners, electricians, drywallers, business owners and municipal employees. You can’t tell them what to do. But longtime members like Cutch and Jaime Margetak, the chief, have tried to instill a sense of decorum in their men. Read: no parties.

Training is every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. sharp. There are some new guys on the crew, so they’re going over the basics: airpacks, hydrant hookups, mock address runs. It’s old hat for some of the team, but no one’s allowed to miss more than three practices in a row.

“We’ve lost some guys to work up in Fort Mac,” says Rocket.

“And then some guys join and it’s just not for them,” adds Cutch. “It’s a big commitment for a volunteer. But it gets in the blood, I guess. I really enjoy it or I wouldn’t have been here for 20 years.” They explain why they do it: for the camaraderie, for the town, for the rush.

There’s physical training too, but at their own pace. Most of the men on the department smoke. Some have beer bellies. Cutch likes to rib Rocket about the time they had to run up Goat Mountain with their packs. “He got halfway up, said ‘screw this’ and ran back down.”

That training is crucial when emergencies strike. When fires start, members get a page from the 911 dispatcher in Black Diamond, a brief message summarizing the situation – things like “Structure fire,” “People still inside” or “Kids involved.”

“That’s scary,” says Rocket. “We get bad ones like ‘car crash’ and, living in a small community, you might know them.”

Rocket didn’t know the man with hep C who was jumped and beaten to a pulp outside the Green Hill before stumbling off into the night. He was from out of town. The fire crew was called in to clean up the mess.

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