Tim Doane lights a propane torch and steps into a house on the edge of Powder Mill Lake, a half-hour from Halifax.
“Let’s get her started,” he says. Within minutes, thick, acrid smoke billows from a window. Outside, members of the nearby Lantz Volunteer Fire Department wait for the flames to build. Doane is their training officer, and tonight he’s leading them in exercises at the Nova Scotia Firefighters School.
“Firefighting gets in your blood,” says 37-year-old Lantz deputy chief Tim MacNeil, who has been with the department since age 19. He works two day jobs, including one fighting forest fires. “Everybody’s boyhood dream is to drive that big red truck,” he says. “I’m trained to do it, and I love to do it. If your house is on fire, I want to be there to put the fire out.”
Sarah DeWolfe, 19, is the only woman on the 30-member force. Her father and fiancé are both firefighters, and she hopes eventually to make it a career herself. For now, she works at the local supermarket. Like many volunteers, her ability to respond to fires during work hours-she’s on call 24/7-depends on her employer. “Where I work now, they are pretty good, depending on how busy the store is.”
Volunteers across the country face the same juggling act between job and passion: More than 80 percent of the approximately 4,000 fire departments in Canada are partially or fully volunteer, according to Cris Leonard, CEO of Firehall Online Inc.
Today’s volunteer firefighters do more than fight fires: They’re often the first ones on the scene when it comes to car accidents and medical emergencies. The Lantz department has gone from about 25 calls a year, when MacNeil first joined, to over 200 last year.
And apart from the sheer load, there’s the emotional side: Once, MacNeil arrived on the scene of a house fire to learn a friend had died in the blaze. And DeWolfe recalls trying to save a young girl who had been fatally injured after being hit by a car. “Her parents had to watch it, too,” she says.
Training once a week, always being on call, facing danger and possible personal loss-it’s hard work. So why do they do it for free? Many cite the strong bonds they forge, the training they receive and the satisfaction that comes from serving the community and saving lives.
MacNeil walks towards the pumper truck, sleeves rolled up, one forearm sporting what he calls a “firefighter’s tattoo.” It has three words in Japanese. Translated, it reads: Brotherhood, courage, strength.