In 1969, Clive Sparks was driving a water truck for the territorial government.
He figured that he could also drive a water truck to a house fire, so he signed up for the Porter Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
“‘Let’s see if a coat and boots will fit you,’” said Sparks. “That was my basic training.”
Forty-five years later, Sparks is chief of the Whitehorse Fire Department, and new recruits get significantly more robust preparation for the job.
Over the next two months, the department will be looking for a new batch of volunteers. Sparks said he’s looking to fill 10 to 12 spots. “But if we get 20 people that are really good, then I’d be tempted to start training 20 people.”
Applicants need to pass written and physical testing, provide a medical clearance, a driver’s abstract and go through an interview process to become a recruit.
After that, there’s more than 200 hours of basic training before they’ll set foot on a fire scene.
“Understanding how the equipment works, and how a fire burns, is crucial,” said Sparks.
There’s no denying that firefighting is a dangerous job.
“There’s danger, and there’s unsafe, and those are really two different things,” said Sparks. “We’re going to send you into a dangerous situation safely. We’ll never send you into unsafe conditions, or one you’re untrained for.”
It’s a big commitment, and not one that will appeal to everybody. After basic training, volunteers need to be on-call for 100 hours a month, and also attend 75 per cent of training sessions.
“I can guarantee you this: we will interrupt every possible activity you can think of with a fire call, and I mean every activity,” said Sparks with a laugh.
“You’ll work your day job, sit down for dinner, get a fire call and won’t be home till 8 o’clock the next morning, and have to go to work again.”
In Yukon’s rural communities, fire departments are all volunteers. “The reality is, in the smaller communities, that once you have your basic training, you’ll be going to fire scenes, within the limitations of training,” said Fire Marshal Dennis Berry. “We do a lot of learning on the job in our system.”
Berry said that he’d like to have at least 15 volunteers in every rural fire hall, but some areas – Pelly Crossing, Carcross and Tagish – are particularly in need of new blood.
Every now and then a fire call goes unanswered in rural areas.
Berry relates a typical dialogue:
“Nobody came to my chimney fire!”
“I’ll ask, “How old are you?”
“Have you thought about joining the fire department?”
“No, I’m too busy.”
“So were the six people that didn’t come to your house.”
“If you live in a rural area, and you want a fire truck to come to your house, and you’re fit, then you need to be a part of that department,” Berry said. “We rarely get dropped calls, but when we do, it’s because we don’t have enough volunteers.”
Whitehorse volunteers’ schedules are based on availability for 100 hours a month, but their rural counterparts get a pager and are on call 24/7. A larger department makes it easier to share the responsibility.
It’s not all danger and interruptions, though.
Volunteers get training in a wide set of skills, including driving state-of-the-art fire trucks.
“Before you turn them loose with a half-a-million-dollar truck, they’re going to know how to drive it,” said Sparks. That’s a Class 3 licence with air brakes. There’s also pump operator and aerial ladder training.
For those with career aspirations, volunteering is the way to start.
Whitehorse hires its full-timers from the volunteer pool. “In 30 years we haven’t had to look elsewhere,” said Sparks.
Once a volunteer is fully trained, they become a highly skilled worker. Recruits have gone on to careers in city fire departments like Calgary and Delta, B.C.
Sparks estimates that about 25 per cent of recruits are pursuing a firefighting career, and 25 to 30 per cent are interested in learning new skills. The rest are in it to serve the community, or enjoy the excitement of the job.
Both Sparks and Berry appreciate the camaraderie that develops among the crews. “It’s a family,” said Sparks.
The Whitehorse and Dawson departments are both more than 100 years old. “Few volunteer opportunities have this much tradition,” said Berry.
Long-time volunteer Mark Iceton has been with the Whitehorse department for 40 years. “As long as you don’t mind hard work, it can be very rewarding,” he said. “And the people are great.”
“Fires can be challenging, they can hide out in closets, hard to find,” said Iceton.
“If you can find it, and knock it down, without too much damage, and save the building, that’s pretty rewarding.”
“What’s more fun than breaking things and putting water on them?” said Berry with a laugh.
Contact the Yukon Fire Marshal’s Office at (867) 667-5217 for more information about community and rural volunteering.
Contact Ian Stewart at