When Clive Sparks joined the Porter Creek fire department in 1969, he was given some boots, a helmet, a jacket and some gloves.
“The only requirement was a proper driver’s licence. Other than that, you just needed willingness and availability,” he says.
“We got a little bit of training, but most of it was learning as you went along. It was, ‘here’s how you plug in the pump hose and here’s how you unroll it and here’s how you put the water on the fire.”
Forty-five years later, Sparks is leaving the fire service. In March, he will retire from his role as Whitehorse fire chief after a long and illustrious career.
“Well, a long one, anyway,” he says, laughing.
In the years since Sparks first started as a volunteer in Porter Creek, the firefighter training manual has quadrupled in length and detail, spanning 1,400 pages.
Now a new recruit goes through more than 150 hours of training before even setting foot on a fire scene.
“The safety of the firefighters is what’s most important,” Sparks says, almost automatically, as though reading from yet another training script.
Down the hall from Sparks’ office, bawdy laughter echoes from a break room where firefighters – some of them half his age – relax between calls.
Sparks has watched for decades as the department took eager young men and women, turned them into professionals, and sent them deliberately into dangerous places to save lives.
The trick, Sparks says, is to make sure it’s only the environment that is dangerous, not the work itself.
“We don’t send people into unsafe conditions. We send them into danger safely,” he says.
Even so, fire chiefs face some tough decisions, especially while in charge of a bad scene.
“Often when you get to a fire, you know fairly quickly if there’s anybody in the building or not. The ones where you roll up and there are people still inside and you know they don’t have a chance, those are always hard.”
“When you know there are victims in there that you can’t get to, you just have to deal with it … after,” he says, with a pause.
But sometimes people can be saved, and in order to do it Sparks sometimes has to risk his own fighters’ lives. It’s a heavy burden to carry, but when asked about it Sparks again seems to instinctively return to his training.
“If we believe that there is somebody in there that we can rescue, then we will work very hard to do that. There are certain risks that you have to take, but if we can effect a rescue that’s really good.
“But you do have to weigh those risks. I don’t really know if I can say how it feels. You do it, and you have to do it quickly. You can’t look at textbooks when you’re out there; you just have to make decisions. That’s part of what the training is all about. It’s part of being able to look at the risks. It’s not like red-light, green-light,” he said.
Sparks and the rest of the department have a history of making the right calls. Since 1950, the furthest back that reliable records go, the department has never lost a firefighter at a scene.
“There have been some where it was a very smoky fire where we got people out and they wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for the firefighters going in to get them,” Sparks says.
But that’s not to say those fighters haven’t suffered. While a burning building obviously presents some immediate dangers, a more insidious danger lurks in modern building materials that, when set alight, can release a whole host of carcinogens. Even with the best breathing apparatuses, cancer poses a serious risk to people who fight fires for their entire working lives.
“Nowadays we have presumptive cancer legislation (an insurance policy for any firefighter who is diagnosed with cancer), and we have one person who’s coming back from that. We’ve had some injuries at fires, but they’ve been things like a broken arm or leg,” he said.
When you walk into burning buildings for a living, you’re bound to rack up your share of close calls. For Sparks, it happened at a house fire years ago.
“We were in a house fire, but it was a sort of a weird situation. It appeared that the fire started in the living room, but in reality it had burned down and was now in the basement. Every time we thought we’d put the fire out it would flare up again because it was down in the basement.”
Sparks and his partner decided to leave and fight the fire from outside. As the two headed for the door, a heavy fan above them came free of the ceiling and crashed down between them, barely missing both men.
“It’s not the sort of thing you want to have hit you,” Sparks said, chuckling.
Sitting in his office as he talks, Sparks is surrounded by photos of old fires and paintings of vintage warplanes. His father built Avro Lancaster bombers in the Second World War. Next to a portrait of the massive, insect-like behemoth is a photo of the Yukon airport hangar fire of 1999. Across the room, the SS Caska and the SS Whitehorse roil with flames behind a glass frame.
Sparks was at both those fires. He remembers the paddlewheeler blaze clearly.
“That was a hot day,” he says. He’s talking about the weather that morning, but he could just as easily be talking about the fire itself.
“We knew right from the start, within 20 minutes of my getting there, you know just looking at it that you’re not going to save them. But it was late evening before the last of the embers were put out,” he says.
His voice is twinged with nostalgia. Sparks obviously cares deeply for his department, its firefighters and their past battles. It will be hard for him to leave it behind.
“I’m mostly feeling good, because I’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while. Obviously it’s a huge change, so in some ways it’s sad and a little scary,” he says.
“At least I can walk away from here and feel good that the department is going to keep moving forward very well. It’s not going to fall apart.
“But it’s going to be a transition, for sure. Every time you hear the trucks go out, you’re going to want to know what’s going on, but that won’t be my job anymore.”
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