Dan Adamson was on his way back to camp after a long day fighting the Fort McMurray fire when something caught his attention.
The Yukon wildland firefighter’s helicopter was flying at about 3,000 feet but he could still clearly make out what the sign drawn in the sand was.
Somebody had drawn the acronym FMS, for Fort McMurray Strong, each letter measuring roughly 200 metres in length.
“I looked down and there was this monstrous FMS (sign) written with heavy equipment in the actual sand,” the crew leader remembers. “You could land a small plane on any of those (letters).”
It was the slogan used by residents in the aftermath of the fire tearing through the city to show their resilience.
Its position had purpose: it was in the flight path of more than a hundred helicopters shipping firefighters in and out.
It was one of the many ways the people of Fort McMurray showed their gratitude to firefighters.
In late May, 30 Yukon wildland firefighters went to Fort McMurray to help fight the enormous fire that tore through the city, destroying 2,400 buildings.
When they arrived the fire had jumped the Saskatchewan border.
Their mission was to extinguish hot spots the fire had left behind, in order to prevent any flare-ups.
Their work was outside the city, in remote areas only accessible by helicopters, but Yukon’s fire crews were in their element.
Because of the territory’s sparse population, they end up fighting a lot of fires in the wilderness.
For them, taking an helicopter is like riding a bicycle, and they’re used to running firehoses long distances to reach the flames – whatever it takes.
Outside Fort McMurray, a long, meticulous two-week mission began. The crews worked 12-hour shifts, carrying heavy equipment across marshy terrain, ensuring there was no risk the fire could reignite, potentially causing more destruction and trapping other firefighters on the front lines.
Adamson remembers a rewarding mission with some odd encounters.
One day as the firefighters were working they stumbled upon a working military tank.
“This guy had a collection of military vehicles,” Adamson said, laughing.
“That’s just,” he said, pausing, “people have their own hobbies.”
The numbers of firefighters deployed to fight the fire gives a good idea of how enormous it was.
Around the time the Yukon contingent arrived there were over 2,000 firefighters deployed from all over Canada, the U.S., Mexico and South Africa among others.
Adamson remembers the helicopters flying in and out of the camp he was stationed at resembling swarms of mosquitoes.
“They were taking off so fast you could barely get through on the (radio) channels,” he said.
There were three helicopters flying over the camp solely tasked with monitoring the traffic, plus a base on the ground.
“I’d be in an aircraft and they’d be running four different radios.”
The much-publicized South African contingent’s dancing was something Yukon wildland firefighters remember well.
Reggie Clarke, who was also part of the Yukon crew, was blown away.
“The energy and the environment they created was just phenomenal,” he said
A week after that Clarke remembers the Mexican contingent arriving.
“They were so grateful and happy to be a part of helping on the journey to overcome the fire,” he said.
Yukoners and Mexicans ended up trading their respective shirts and patches, like soccer players at international tournaments.
During the mission Clarke worked with a pilot who had more than 40 years of experience.
“It was just mind blowing how he could fly a chopper like an extension of his body,” he said.
That made things a lot easier – no matter what the weather was like, Grandpa Earl, as the firefighters nicknamed him, would show up and bring them home safely.
Clarke recalls the most emotional displays of gratitude he encountered as the firefighters prepared to leave Alberta.
“This one lady, when I was at the airport, she started telling me she was thankful,” he said.
She had lost her parents in another fire years before, so it meant a lot to her.
“It’s not everyday you get thanks for the work you do,” he said. “It hit home for me.”
When the Yukon crew had dinner before boarding their flight home, the restaurant gave them a discount.
The people of Fort McMurray, including the waitress who was serving them, were happy life was beginning to return to normal, Clarke said.
“It made me feel proud to be a wildland firefighter.”
Contact Pierre Chauvin at