Several Airdrie RCMP members have been deployed north in recent weeks to assist with the wildfire situation in support of overburdened regional detachments and local evacuees.
Cst. Jennifer Weedmark was dispatched to the Whitecourt and Edson areas between May 14 and 19 to provide police assistance in support of local populations that were impacted by the wildfires near Fox Creek, Valleyview, Swan Hills, and Shining Bank.
Weedmark said it was her first ever time being sent north to help with wildfires, and it’s an experience she will never forget.
“It is definitely the closest I have ever been to a massive forest fire,” she said. “At one point, the fire was literally three kilometres up the road from me. I was able to drive up to it, park my car, and go ‘Wow.’”
Weedmark likened the harrowing experience to being in the midst of an apocalypse.
“You would be going down these back roads that don’t even have names, and you’d see these hot spots just pop out of the ground,” she said. “I have never seen anything like that. It was a pretty different place to be, that’s for sure.”
During her deployment, the constable’s main duties were to help supervise and operate road blocks, provide information to people who were forced to flee the encroaching fires, and rove around deserted communities to ensure no vandalism, theft, or other crimes were taking place amid the residents’ absence.
But she also had occasion to take a more active role in ensuring evacuees left in an orderly fashion to move to safety.
“The fire that was at Shining Bank was the most concerning at the time, as it was infringing on the town of Niton, which was just northeast of Edson,” Weedmark recalled. “We actually had to help evacuate that part of Yellowhead County when I was there.”
What helped Weedmark control her own anxiety during the stressful situation was remembering her duty to others. Having and showing empathy was key, she said, to keeping tempers cool despite the stress induced by the encroaching flames.
“You have to have an understanding that emotions are running high, everybody is afraid for their safety, the safety of their property, the safety of their livestock,” she said.
Weedmark had nothing but praise for the compassionate spirit shown by the people in communities like Whitecourt, who took in most of the evacuees.
“Because Whitecourt was used an evacuation zone, a safe haven for evacuees from Fox Creek and Valleyview – so the population of Whitecourt doubled, if not tripled, overnight,” she recalled.
She also credited the firefighters and other emergency personnel from across the province who were fighting through fatigue and terrible conditions to try to bring the flames to heel, and save homes and lives in the process.
Weedmark was also grateful for the support of all the RCMP members she worked with who came to northern Alberta from all over British Columbia and Alberta to lend a helping hand.
“Working for the RCMP, I find it neat to be dispatched to these areas,” she said. “I didn’t work with one member I have ever worked with before. It’s always cool to see how we are trained the same, we work the same, we think the same, and we are put into different situations where we still work as a team.”