Ring Of Fire

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

On average eight firefighters respond to each call, and there are about 30 calls a year. They reach the station, don heavy sets of fireproof bunker gear, balaclavas and hard hats with ear flaps, then jump in their big red pumper truck. All 21 members are trained on all the equipment. They all have class-two drivers’ licenses with air breaks as well as first-aid and fire training.

Grass fires are the most common call in the summer months, chimney fires in winter. The worst residential fire last year was a three-storey apartment building, which is as high as things get – so far – in Blairmore. There were people in the building. Rocket and his buddy Nick Squarek rescued a man off the roof.

“As soon as the pager goes off, you’re pumped,” Cutch says, eyes lit up and at a loss for words. “It’s just… you’re pumped.”

They were pumped during the Lost Creek fire. That area behind Hillcrest was called the “asbestos forest” because it never burned. Then, on July 23, 2003, a blaze started. For 31 days 900 firefighters, including water bombers and crews from Ontario, struggled to get it under control. At its peak, the fire moved 27 metres a minute. Hillcrest’s volunteer fire department was on the front lines. In Blairmore, the crew was at the hall 24/7. The municipality secured time off work with wages for most of them. They evacuated 1,100 people and literally doused houses with Canadian Tire sprinklers. At night they patrolled the evacuated zone. They camped out in sleeping bags in the fire hall, painting it and doing odd jobs in their downtime.

Dozens of water trucks were parked outside the Green Hill – “in case,” Cutch says. “We were well prepared. If it had come into town, we would have kicked its butt right out of there.”

Again, the Crowsnest Pass was at the mercy of its surroundings. This time, the ending was happy. The only structure lost was a barn. Within weeks, the charred earth gave life to green wild grasses and purple fireweed flowers. For the next three years it produced a bumper crop of exquisite morel mushrooms, prized for their flavour. Pickers from across Canada cashed in.

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On July 19, the Blairmore Fire Department will blow more than $30,000 in 30 minutes, a professional fireworks show that’s comparable to Ottawa’s Canada Day spectacle. The price tag is just for product. A show like that would “retail” for about $120,000, with the bulk of the cost going to pyrotechnicians. This FD has its own: six ticketed level-two firework supervisors and others with either level-one or apprentice status. Forget chimney fires, this is the reason some guys join. You don’t know loud until you’ve heard fireworks echoing off the mountains to the tune of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

Thunder in the Valley originated in 1994 as the finale of Rum Runner Days, the Pass’ annual festival commemorating its boozy historical distinction. That first year, the entire show was stored in a room the size of a broom closet. Now it’s split between an explosives magazine in the fire hall and an adjacent 2,500-square-foot warehouse. Attendance has grown, too. Last year 40,000 people came to Rum Runner Days, and, as Cutch puts it, “they weren’t there for the mud bogs.”

He unlocks the door of the warehouse. The racks inside are lined with mortars. A pile of large stones lies in one corner.

“Oh, those are probably Baillie’s rocks,” says Rocket, tittering.

Cutch frowns. “I knew this was going to turn into a storage area.”

“He’s doing something with his house,” Rocket explains.

The explosives range from a couple inches in diameter to 16 inches. The smaller ones look like ice-cream cones; big ones, like frozen turkeys. They pull out a 12-inch shell labelled “blue chrysanthemum.”

“That would go up, break blue, then send off streams of white, crackling light,” says Rocket.

Another tool in their arsenal is called “sticky match.” Rocket unrolls a clear, crinkly plastic the width of duct tape. A strip of gunpowder, resembling coffee grinds, runs through the middle. With sticky match attached to coloured lances they can make shapes and even words. Seven years ago, they used it to spell out Gord Yanota’s wedding proposal in the sky.
Cutch frowns again. “He still owes us for that.”

Money is the real fuel for Thunder in the Valley. Whether it’s a $40,000 show or a $20,000 one depends on how much they raise. The guys don’t get paid for this labour of love. Fourteen years ago, they started with a $5,000 show, literally knocking on doors to get the money. Now they stage comedy shows, take on paying gigs at fireworks shows in Fernie, Granum and Black Diamond, and get a few thousand from the municipality and corporate sponsors. “The rest is raised by us selling Thunder in the Valley T-shirts to Joes on the street,” Cutch says just as the wind whips up outside, rattling the building. (This in addition to their other fundraising efforts, for causes such as muscular dystrophy, the food bank and the women’s shelter.)

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