Anna Ly will forever remember her first call. On a dark winter morning in Whitehorse, she was asleep in bed when her radio sounded an emergency alert. A house was on fire, and the Golden Horn Volunteer Fire Department had to respond. Ly had spent five months completing her fire training and nervously awaited her first call since.
Back when she was still thinking about joining the department, a fire chief assured her that most calls were false alarms, or motor vehicle accidents where firefighters only needed to help with traffic control. That made Ly feel more comfortable about volunteering as a firefighter — she really didn’t know how she felt about running into a burning building.
Yet here was a house on fire. Ly drove to the station, where she put on her bunker gear and hopped into a pick-up truck with a fellow crew member. Wanting her to feel comfortable on the scene, Ly’s team encouraged her to stand back and learn as more experienced firefighters battled the blaze. Fortunately, no one had been home when the house lit up. Once the fire was more controlled, Ly and a fellow newbie targeted a dumpster near the house that was also alight.
Roughly six hours later, the fire extinguished, Ly drove home, showered, and, still feeling adrenaline and excitement, headed to her day job, working as a clinical dietitian for the Yukon government.
In most communities in the North, the people entrusted with keeping residents, homes and infrastructure safe from fire are volunteers. At any time, day or night, they might receive a call of a structure fire, motor vehicle accident or carbon monoxide alarm and rush to the scene.
This is the norm in rural, remote communities across Canada — of an estimated 126,000 firefighters nationwide, about 90,000 are volunteers, working out of more than 2,000 volunteer fire halls. Many receive only a small stipend for calls and training sessions.
Large cities, on the other hand, have paid full-time firefighters. In the North, Whitehorse and Yellowknife are home to career departments, while Iqaluit has a mix of paid full-time staff and on-call volunteers. In the Nunavut capital, career firefighters also respond to medical calls.
“Every time any [volunteer] firefighter shows up to a call they may be exposed to toxic or traumatic events,” states the 2021 Great Canadian Volunteer Firefighter Census, produced by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. “While it is the way of our sector, it is a rather incredible phenomenon… without them, communities would not be well protected.”
What makes someone want to volunteer to fight fires? Typically, selfless community service takes the form of serving meals at a homeless shelter or visiting with residents at a seniors’ home — not running into a burning building. But volunteer firefighters play a crucial role by protecting our northern communities. Here’s a look at why they do what they do.
Keith Morrison was 15 years old when he got acquainted with firefighting. His Scouts group in rural New Brunswick partnered up with different organizations to give kids some co-op experience. One of them was the local fire hall. Morrison was interested right away, fascinated by the science of fire and the fact that, in a time of crisis, he could help. After his Scouts experience, he joined his local volunteer department.
One day, a report of a barn fire came in over the radio. “You didn’t know what was in the barn — might be equipment, might have been animals,” he says. “It was our nightmare scenario where we lived.” The crew headed to the scene, and once they arrived the truck driver tossed Morrison his portable radio.
“Just like that, I was the fire ground officer,” he says — still a teenager and responsible for communication and team co-ordination. He realized firefighting was more than running around with a hose—and that it was something he was good at.
Fast forward to 1998 when Morrison moved to Cambridge Bay. One day, as he watched the community’s high school burn down, he began to think about joining the fire department. Today, he is Cambridge Bay’s fire chief — also a volunteer role. Along with responding to calls, he’s responsible for administration, making sure equipment works, filing reports and doing fire investigations.
“As long as everybody gets home safe, that’s my primary goal,” Morrison says. “If we’ve done some good, it’s a very nice feeling.”
It’s a common refrain among volunteer firefighters: they want to give back to their communities. Wini Brehm joined the Hootalinqua Volunteer Fire Department, north of Whitehorse, out of a sense of gratitude. She’d bought a house in 2018 and, feeling like the Yukon had changed her life for the better, began to consider different volunteer opportunities.
“The first things that came to mind were either volunteering at the [animal] shelter or potentially joining a fire hall, and I wasn’t quite ready to have 20 dogs,” she says with a laugh. “So I thought I’d give firefighting a shot.”
Brehm didn’t expect to like it. The stereotype of firefighting as a macho, male activity made her wary. “I was wrong,” she says. “The Yukon fire service is very inclusive and — I know this is going to sound super cheesy — but it really feels like one big family.”
Four years later, Brehm is Hootalinqua’s fire chief. She splits a $600 monthly honorarium with two other staff, though she’s been saving her portion to buy better portable lights for the hall. While the Yukon fire marshal’s office pays for equipment for volunteer departments, Brehm says it’s customary for fire chiefs to invest their stipends in items that aren’t covered.
The 21 volunteers at Hootalinqua — as well as those at other volunteer halls throughout the Yukon — do earn a stipend of $22 per hour, an amount that hasn’t changed in years. The fire marshal’s office says it is planning to increase the rate. In NWT, honorariums vary from fire hall to fire hall. In Iqaluit, volunteer firefighters don’t receive a stipend.
But Brehm loves that firefighting pushes her out of her comfort zone, like the time her crew practiced high-angle rescue on Haeckel Hill in Whitehorse. They clambered up the inside of the wind turbine atop the mountain and then roped down the exterior. “I have a slight fear of heights and definitely did not enjoy it, but that didn’t stop me from doing it a couple times, just to make sure I got the skills down.”
Firefighting is simply unlike other volunteer gigs. “To be willing to essentially respond to emergencies — I do think it takes a different person, for sure. You have to have a very high level of dedication and integrity and sense of service,” Brehm says.
New volunteers have to complete training to a certain standard, and all firefighters have to maintain their skills and fitness with regular training sessions. Many departments have a weekly night when the team comes together to train. In all three territories, volunteers are covered by their respective workers’ compensation board. In the Yukon and in Iqaluit, they have access to mental health support. According to an NWT government spokesperson, “Volunteer firefighters… are a community-based resource, so mental health programs and support would be determined by each individual community and their fire department.”
Another necessity is balancing firefighting with your real job. Employers are aware their workers may have to leave at a moment’s notice if called to a fire.
Eiryn Devereaux, a volunteer firefighter in Iqaluit who is president and CEO of the Nunavut Housing Corporation, says it just requires a bit of juggling. “If it’s a big fire that I know is going to take a lot of resources, then [there would] have to be something pretty serious at work for me not to go,” he says.
Volunteer firefighters also have to contend with emergency calls affecting their personal time. In 2019, Brehm was at brunch with friends on her birthday when she got a call on her radio — her second ever.
“I was new and eager to go to anything,” she says. “I left my brunch, ran out to the fire hall and then spent half the day driving around, chasing this call that we got for a wildfire.” (Turns out, it wasn’t a wildfire. A man was burning piles of lumber in his yard without a permit.)
Firefighting in Canada began as a volunteer effort, all the way back with the so-called “bucket brigades” of the 1600s and 1700s. When a building lit up, a ringing church bell or large rattle shook by a watchman would inform the town. Neighbours would rush out with buckets, forming an assembly line from the nearest well to the fire, with men passing forward the full buckets and women and children handing empty ones back to the well.
The first organized fire department in Canada was formed in Halifax in 1754, and as Canadian towns expanded throughout the mid-1800s, the number of volunteer fire departments grew along with them.
According to the Canadian Fire Fighters Museum’s website, many towns had more than one fire service, which “often led to competition — even battles — among them to determine which group would get to fight the fire and collect a reward from the insurance company which held the fire insurance policy for the building.”
It was only throughout the 20th century that large cities began creating paid firefighting positions and phasing out volunteers. But staffing a fire department around the clock in a small community can be prohibitively expensive. Given that many have low call volume — a 2021 review of the Yukon fire marshal’s office found that volunteer halls responded to between one and 40 calls annually — the high cost of salaries is often not justified.
“In an ideal world, everybody would be paid but that means you’re literally paying someone to sit around, do some training and be on call for days or weeks before they actually have to do anything,” says Morrison.
In Fort Smith, NT, where volunteer firefighters double as medics, the territorial government pays the community for providing ambulatory service through the Ground Ambulance and Highway Rescue Funding Program. But Adam McNab, the community’s fire chief, says “that [funding] would cover a third of one paid employee.” And given Fort Smith’s population of 2,200 people, paying full-time firefighter salaries with the municipal tax base just wouldn’t be possible, he adds.
Recruitment is also a significant challenge facing many volunteer fire halls. The Yukon fire marshal’s office review states that it’s particularly difficult in remote areas since they have smaller population bases with residents who might work outside the community.
“The level of dedication required can make it hard to find people that are able to give that kind of commitment,” McNab says. “More and more the demands of a volunteer fire department are the same as the demands of a paid fire department. At the end of the day, you need to be as well-trained, you need to be as safe, you need to administer everything to the same degree, document everything to the same degree.”
The Northwest Territories fire marshal’s office produced a toolkit in 2014 for recruiting and retaining firefighters. And in 2021, the territorial government hosted a training camp in hopes of increasing the number of women and non-binary people in the fire service.
In the Yukon, Ember Fire Academy launched in the summer of 2014 with the goal of introducing women to firefighting. It’s where Ly spent a week in 2019, learning about fire, cutting open cars and blasting flames with a hose, before deciding to sign up at the Golden Horn department, south of Whitehorse.
Another challenge, particularly in Nunavut, is that many communities have no neighbouring fire departments to provide additional support if needed. “If we were working in downtown Ottawa, we could call other stations in to get more manpower,” says Stephen McGean, chief of the capital’s fire department. “But we’re in Iqaluit. This is it.”
And, of course, there’s the cold. At minus 30 degrees and below, water has to be pumped continuously through the hoses or it will freeze inside, rendering the tool useless. Nozzles freeze. Equipment breaks. Firefighters’ bunker gear gets soaked with water and also freezes. People get cold. Water on the ground turns to ice, transforming the scene of a fire into a skating rink. Many departments make sure to train in cold weather so they’re prepared. Frustratingly, the one thing the cold doesn’t do is put out the fire. In fact, the North’s low humidity and high winds make it easy for fires to spread out of control.
What kind of person chooses to spend their free time fighting fires in these conditions?
“There are a lot of us who do it for the fun of it — the fun of learning those skills,” Ly says. “I think you definitely have something in you that’s a little bit of a calling or something [about it] just really resonates with you.”
For some, like McGean, it began as fulfilling a childhood dream. “To be able to jump on the big red trucks and go screaming down the road with lights and sirens, you get that childhood rush of adrenaline.”
Many volunteer firefighters agree that it’s incredibly rewarding work, and know they’re appreciated by their community. At some Cambridge Bay fires over the years, people have dropped off soup and sandwiches to sustain the crews, says Morrison.
“There’s something special about working with someone when your safety and their safety matter,” Ly says. “It’s not just, ‘I’m going to work in an office and if I don’t get along well with my co-worker, whatever.’ In the fire service, I really have to trust this person… There is a different kind of bond that gets created.”
Devereaux agrees, though he jokes that you probably have to be “a little crazy” to join. He started volunteering as a firefighter in Norman Wells, NT in 2004, and later moved to Halifax, where he joined a joint career-volunteer hall. In the early days, every time a call came in, he’d get a rush of adrenaline. Now that he’s been at it for 20 years that excitement has been replaced with a feeling of calm, even when it’s a big fire — like the 2018 Northmart warehouse blaze in Iqaluit.
When that call came in one November night, both the city’s career and volunteer firefighters responded. They’d been on scene for about 10 minutes, Devereaux remembers, when someone came running down the road and said there was another fire nearby. Half the crew headed over to an abandoned house with garbage and mattresses out front that an arsonist had ignited. Three or four more fires were reported in quick succession — each one a car that had been torched. One firefighter ran around with an extinguisher putting those out, and by the time the rest of the crew had returned to the Northmart warehouse, it was fully engulfed in flames.
The goal became containing the fire so it didn’t spread to the attached store and nearby buildings, including an elders’ facility. The team used both city fire trucks that night, plus a third older truck that was typically reserved for training. After about 12 hours on scene, half of the firefighters were sent home to sleep. They began working shifts, with smaller teams battling the blaze for the next day or so until the fire was completely extinguished. Other volunteer firefighters even flew in from Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset to offer relief.
“It was pretty wild,” says Devereaux. “There was a lot of exhaustion. There was a lot of, I think, pride or gratefulness, seeing all the firefighters stepping up to the plate… It was a great feeling, just to be part of that.”