Saturday, May 30, 2009

silver lining

Every cloud has a silver lining. Or at least that's what they say. Northwestern Ontario has seen a lot of cumulonimbus in the past few years, but very little silver. Take Ignace for example. They are Upsala's nearest municipal neighbour to the west. Sixteen or seventeen years ago the local mine shut down, ending the gravy days for the town. More recently the forest industry has been in trouble with lots of jobs lost. Pretty gloomy stuff, but the Ignacians are tough. If they can't have silver, they'll make do with aluminum foil.

There is an abandoned building about a minute's drive from the Ignace fire hall. It used to have a bustling grocery store on the ground floor, and apartments on the second floor. Now it's an empty shell, reclaimed by the municipality. The silver lining is that Ignace fire department can use it for training. Yesterday we raked students over the coals of firefighter survival training in the apartments. Tangled straps, blacked-out masks, partially dismembered air packs, screeching man-down alarms, snarls of wire were the order of the day. We instructors take sadistic pleasure in dreaming up ingenious ways to badger our students into proficiency. The silver lining is that we genuinely want them to live to tell their grandkids how dastardly cruel we were.
Here is a clip of a firefighter winning against a gauntlet that someone dreamed up for him.

In between groups of firefighters (in varying degrees of distress), I looked around the empty apartment we had comandeered. There were remnants of the days when the building still lived and breathed. A flowered tea towel hanging on the kitchen range handle. A 1984 penny on the musty green carpet. An old record player in a walnut cabinet. I could almost hear the echoes of days gone by. No, wait a minute. That's a firefighter's PASS alarm echoing off the empty walls.

The recession ghost is getting lots of headline news lately, but it has haunted the North for many years. It's just gotten worse in the past year. People that were hanging on by a thread collect unemployment now. That's the silver lining. The dark cloud is that the job creators are out on their ear. Toast. No benefits whatsoever. Go figure. The employee is taken care of, but the employer - the guy that creates the job in the first place, the heroic recession fighter - doesn't get a red cent. A friend of mine who employed scores of people over the years is now bankrupt. Another is pumping gas for a living. If you're feeling gloomy, or if your name is Stephen Harper or Dalton McGuinty, click

Enough of the devil. Training continues in Ignace. We're having fun. The crews are learning lots of cool stuff. Today we froze to death moving water from hydrants and ponds and portable ponds. Not your glitzy, camera-catching training, but just as important as the live fire stuff. If you've ever been an Incident Commander watching both the burning house and your water supply disappear while waiting for the tanker to return, you know what I mean.

As bad as things get, I suspect the volunteer firefighter will always be here, just like the bedrock that seems to symbolize Ignace. Recession or no recession, the North will remain too. Otherwise, where would the politicians go fishing?

Thursday, May 28, 2009


At a fire scene, we like to talk about benchmarks. Things like the first water on the fire, a building search completed, the fire under control . . . we use these events as a kind of barometer to help determine our progress. You know, if we've been there 30 minutes and haven't put any water on the fire yet, it's a bad day for everyone.

Season's have benchmarks too. Things like the ice going off the lakes (see my May 7 post), the first tulip, the first feed of fresh peas, the first frost. Sometimes things aren't quite that cut and dry though. Take for example, the first snowfall. If it comes in the middle of July, is it really the first snowfall of this winter, or is it the last snowfall of last winter? Either way it sucks. Nobody likes snow in July. But I digress.

Upsala reached a seasonal benchmark today. The first cloud of black flies appeared. Ugh. Fortunately they were as sluggish as my lawnmower, which I tried to awaken out of hibernation today (another benchmark - the first lawn mowing. Ugh again). They won't stay sluggish for long though. Pound for pound, they have the largest appetite of any creature in the Western Hemisphere (I just made that up). Ecuador and Columbia have piranhas. Northern Ontario has black flies. They are so entrenched in our culture that there is a song about them, written by Wade Hemsworth. If you've never heard this essential musical benchmark in Canadian culture click here. The only thing that comes close to the ferocity of the black fly is the Northern Ontario mosquito. One exceptionally large specimen hovers over the Upsala Canop.

We're training in Ignace this weekend. Fifteen brave souls have showed up knowing that they are going to be fed to these winged wolves one drop of blood at a time if the temperature gets above 20 degrees. I've always said volunteer firefighters are either crazy or tremendously dedicated.

Actually, they're probably both.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

the brag

I want to brag for a minute. Upsala firefighters fought a fire by the book last night. The caller dialed 911 and gave a proper address (instead of saying "it's at Joe's place by the big birch tree"), we actually found the place instead of barrelling by, someone met us in the driveway to tell us where the fire started and that everyone was out, we ventilated the fire side, attacked from the less burned side, set up the fan, the fan actually worked, we extinguished the fire before the roof caved in, and did overhaul with axes instead of a backhoe. Whew. I'm out of breath.

It might not seem like a big deal to you, but those types of responses in Upsala are about as scarce as blackflies in Toronto. Read my April 15 post for another look at firefighting in Upsala.

Then there's that self-sufficient, boondocks mentality that is so prevalent in remote places. Lots of times they don't even need us.


If you want to see more Herman and other cartoons, click here.

Firefighters are strange creatures (I think I've said that before). We work hard at public education, then get bored because "it's been quiet lately." We teach people how to use fire extinguishers, but are secretly disappointed when we arrive and find that they beat us to it. It must have something to do with brain fever from too much live fire training.

When it comes to the jump-the-gun-don't-wait-for-the-fire-department mentality, volunteer firefighters are the worst offenders. Three or four times we've arrived, adrenalin pumping, lights flashing, hands itching to pull a line, only to find a grinning volunteer in street clothes with a smoking extinguisher in his hand. The nerve of these over-trained, under-worked imps.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

five minutes of fame

I'm famous! At least I was famous for a few minutes. The Chronicle Journal put a photo of me on the front page of their Sunday paper. (I'm in the dark gear in the middle). You're probably thinking yeah right, some picture. All you can see is the back of his helmet.

Maybe that's why no one asked for my autograph.

One Upsala firefighter got her photo on the front page as well, only she got a face shot. I asked for her autograph, but she declined. Upstaged by a rookie again. If you want to read the article, click here.

We don't normally get a front page spot, but fate worked on our behalf. A reporter was driving the back roads looking for a fire that didn't occur, and happened to pass by our training site. She asked if she could write an article about the Fire College training weekend. Hence all the excitment and cameras. The result was an almost full front page article about the training weekend. A tremendous boost for all the volunteers and instructors in attendance. It's nice to see that someone besides us thinks this stuff is important.
Fame is a fickle thing. Tomorrow they'll forget all about us unless we do something brilliant or stupid. They'll be busy chasing Wall Street or the Sagging Economy. Oh well, at least we had a lot of fun, and 28 firefighters are better trained to do their important work, which nobody will notice 99% of the time. But that's the life of a volunteer. They do it because it's fun.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Alcohol and I don't get along very well. Not that I have anything against people enjoying a drink. It's not even that I don't like a drink myself. Alcohol just doesn't like me.

Most of my instructor friends get along with alcohol fine. Drinking is one of those bonding things they do after a long day at the office, wearing breathing apparatus, crawling around on their hands and knees, pushing firefighters as near as possible to their breaking points. After the dust settles, and they have a shower (or two showers if we're teaching Flashover), they head for the local watering hole for a beer or two to unwind. Sometimes I like to go along and pretend I'm one of those normal people that can unwind over a beer. But I'm not normal. I don't unwind, I unravel. Like the time that Graham offered me a vodka cooler after a long, hot day teaching firefighters how to tear cars apart.

"C'mon, it's just like a pop," he says.

"I'd better not," I say. "If I don't like it, it'll get wasted."

"Just try it," he says.

So, against my better judgement, I open it and take a sip. Nice, I think. It really is just like a pop. I take another sip. Hey, I think, this is neat. I'm being one of "the guys." I drink a little more and pretend to be cool. Soon it's time to go for supper. My drink is still half full. Aw, what the heck . . . and down the hatch it goes.

The other "normal" guys get up and head to the restaurant next door. "I'll be right along," I say. Then I stand up. Ugh, I don't feel so good. I go to my room to get changed. Funny, I feel like I'm rolling and pitching in a ship on the high seas. And I'm feeling a bit seasick. A half an hour later, I wander into the restaurant. The guys are there unwinding over their beer. They take one look at me and they know . . . a 5% vodka cooler was enough to unravel me.

I sit down and order a Pepsi and a big steak. By the end of the meal I'm feeling better. The waitress refills my Pepsi twice. We sit and tell stories. I decide I can be one of the guys, even with a Pepsi.

It's time to hit the hay. We have to get up at six to whack up some more cars. The waitress offers to fill my Pepsi one more time. "Better not," I say, as I look around at my friends who don't give a hoot that alcohol doesn't like me. "If I drink any more, they'll have to carry me out."

Here is a clip by Jim Breuer about drinking and your stomach. For his web site click here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

another link in the learning chain of survival

I'm instructing this weekend. With the exception of being home with my family, it's my favourite thing to do. Where else can you play with fire, rub shoulders with the best people in the world, and get paid to do it? Firefighting comes a close second, but when the pagers go off, we don't really play with the fire . . . we're supposed to put it out.

It's amazing how many crazy people still live in the world. I mean, of course, volunteer firefighters. I walked into a classroom of 28 people that looked quite sane and normal at first glance. But I knew better. I'm pretty sure they knew better too. For the next three days we are going to work, fry, boil, steam, and otherwise totally wear them out - while their friends are busy recreationing the weekend away. And chances are, they'll go away saying, "Gosh, that was a ton of fun!" No overtime pay, maybe no pay at all, no job hanging on getting this training, no earthly or heavenly reason to put themselves through this. They just want to be firefighters. Volunteer firefighters. Not very sane and normal by most standards. Amazing.

Someday down the road, someone in their community is going to glad these folks are crazy. And someday these firefighters will be glad they learned how to do their crazy job safely.

It's funny, a lot of folks don't take volunteers seriously. "How dangerous can it be? They're just volunteers!" I learned an important, no-brainer truth from another instructor when I was just starting. Fire doesn't ask for your credentials. Get in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you get hurt. Career or volunteer, it doesn't really matter. Click here and here to see clips of hazards firefighters have to deal with. And these are just vehicle fires.

If you're a firefighter, get out there and get trained! Learn not to stand in front of a burning car (or behind a sneezing cow - see the link on the left side). Click here to read my opinions about being qualified, and getting trained.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Spring. Even the word is breezy and colourful. If you close your eyes and say it, you can almost smell the fragrance. When someone comes in from outdoors, the warm breezes and fresh air follow them. In Upsala, spring isn't bold and showy. It kind of sneaks up on you. Right now the tamaracks are just starting to turn a faint pastel green. The poplars aren't far behind, but you can't really tell yet. Some of the more ambitious lawns are greening up as well. My piece of grass at the fire hall is not ambitious. It's a very stubborn brown colour. That's okay with me. Mowing is a severely overrated perk of spring.

Spring is a lamb that can't be eaten by the lion of winter, although I didn't really believe that two days ago when it was snowing. A month ago, everything was covered in frozen snowiness. Or snowy frozen-ness. Whichever you prefer. Warm weather dragged its heels, but the lion retreated and the snow somehow disappeared (then reappeared, then disappeared, then reappeared). A few nights ago we had trouble with hose lines freezing at a fire. It caught me by surprise. It is spring after all. Water is supposed to flow, not freeze. I guess it had something to do with the temperature being below 0 Celsius.

Unless you live in Antarctica or the North Pole, the lamb always wins in the end. The leaves come out, the grass grows, the gardens start promising fresh vegetables that we'll eat as fast as they ripen. That's the up-side . . . along with hose lines that don't freeze anymore. The down-side is that we get to fight off the black flies and mosquitoes for a few months. They have to eat too, I guess.

Speaking of eating, here's another recipe you might like to try. It isn't anything earth-shaking, but it is a nice, fresh-vegetable side dish if you like that kind of thing.

Tim's Zucchini Mix (a boring name, and probably not entirely correct, since my wife had the original idea)

  1. slice up a carrot or two (if you don't like carrots, go on to step 2)
  2. slice up a whole, red bell pepper (if you don't like bell peppers, go to step 3)
  3. slice up a small zucchini (if you don't like zucchini, you've got the wrong recipe)
  4. slice up some mushrooms, whatever kind and however many you want (you can't dislike mushrooms)
  5. melt some butter in a cast iron pan at medium heat
  6. sautee the carrots first for a little bit - they need a head start
  7. toss in the zucchini and mushrooms
  8. sautee everything until almost done
  9. throw in the bell peppers
  10. add some salt, crushed black pepper, and garlic
  11. sprinkle some parmesian cheese, enough to cover the whole thing
  12. shake some basil on to taste, and a touch of oregano. If you have fresh basil and oregano, that's better
  13. toss everything together and taste, add more spices if necessary
  14. cook a tad bit longer, until everything is bright and springy, but not mushy (unless you like mushy zucchini)
  15. eat immediately

DON'T OVERCOOK IT!!! You want everything nice and firm.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

the search

I'm on the hunt for other blogs to link up with. Particularly, firefighting blogs. Even more particularly, funny firefighting blogs. Even more particularly, funny firefighting blogs that aren't crude. But so far, no luck. I guess I'm just too particular.

There are gazillions of blogs out there, and probably millions of funny ones, but I just can't seem to find one that turns my crank. Either I have a weird sense of humor, or the rest of the blogger community is just plain boring . . . or I just haven't stumbled onto a good one yet. For now I have to hold the firefighting humor fort alone. I can feel the heavy responsibility on my shoulders, kind of like Hercules must have felt when Atlas dumped the sky on him. If you like Greek mythology and want to read an abbreviated version of that story click here. (Scroll to the end of the article, unless you really like Greek mythology). Sorry, nothing to do with firefighting.

I have to back track. There is one blog that I enjoy reading, but it has nothing to do with firefighting either. It's mostly about hockey and lacrosse, but the writer drifts around a multitude of other topics, and can be quite funny. If you want to have a look click here.

Firefighters have good reason to favour a strange sense of humor. They have a strange calling. Normal people don't catapult themselves into God-knows-what-kind-of-situation at any time of day or night. Like the time two transports crashed head-on. It was a recovery extrication and . . . well never mind. Or like the other night when we had to comb through a burned-out basement looking for . . . never mind again. Sometimes it's better to keep an inside joke inside.

So, I'm still on the hunt. If you know of a funny firefighting blog that isn't mostly crude jokes, email me and I'll link to it so the other two readers of this blog can laugh too (just kidding about the two readers . . . I'm sure there are thousands and millions of you out there in blog-land). For now you'll have to be happy with a list of Murphy's Laws of Firefighting (click here).

By the way, many firefighters think that Murphy was an optimist.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

drive safe . . . please

The May long weekend is historically the beginning of Upsala Fire Department's "busy" season. Just to qualify that, we aren't ever really busy, compared to our city cousins, but this is the time of year when wildfires burn (when it isn't snowing) and people travel.

The travellers are the ones that give us most of our business. You'd think they would be more likely to crash in a January blizzard than in a July heatwave, but statistics show differently. Statistics are kind of a morbid therometer for the guys that study traffic. About 2500 vehicles drive through Upsala on an average day, more in the summer. 60-80 per year drive off the road or run into another vehicle. About 30 of those folks get to personally meet Upsala's fine paramedics and firefighters. A dozen or so get to a ride in an ambulance. One or two get to ride in a hearse. A good chunk of this stuff happens between the end of May and the first of September in our neck of the woods.

By the way, did you know that 78.3% of Canadians are bored by statistics?

The moral of the story is be careful out there! Drive slower. Buckle up. Chill out. If you really want to meet the local paramedics and firefighters, stop by for coffee.

Sometimes folks just don't get the "drive safely" thing. Check out this kid, for example. I bet he isn't even wearing his seatbelt.
fail owned pwned pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

Then there's this guy, who was obviously reading the message on the billboard instead of watching where he was going.
fail owned pwned pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

Have a great long weekend!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The Sears Fall/Winter catalogue has arrived. That's right. Fall/Winter. And we wonder why it's snowing in the middle of May. Even the weather gremlins are befuddled by corporate marketing practices in North America. You might think my reasoning is bizarre, but I have scientific proof: the Fall/Winter Catalogue comes out every year in May, and every year in May it snows.

I guess there is a slight problem with my cause and effect theory. Why don't we get sun-tanning weather in January when the Spring/Summer catalogue comes out?

I tend to be a why person. I want to know why it snows in May. Or why motorists try to pass on a double yellow line and end up on their roof in the ditch (or worse). Or why the bad decisions of a bunch of over-spending homeowners in California and Kalamazoo affect the global economy . . . so much that a third of my fire department lost their jobs out here in the sticks. Now that's a million dollar question. Or $700 billion. Or whatever.

Perhaps the moral of the story is, don't mess with the gremlins. Weather, highway or economic. Bad things might happen. In other words, I really don't know why.

Click here for a link to a cartoon that explains the weather and economics about as well as I have. If you put your cursor over the clip, it goes away, so just look and laugh.

Monday, May 11, 2009

three cheers for the volunteer firefighter!

Dorion Hotel and Restaurant burned down on Friday. I couldn't find any pictures on the internet, but from the one I saw in the paper, it was a pretty big deal. Six fire departments responded. I'm sure they gave their heart and soul, but with a building that was erected before the Great Depression, I suspect the cards were stacked against them from the get-go. If you want to read a short clip about the fire click here. Sorry, no good pictures, although I'm sure there are some out there if a guy knew who to ask.

Volunteer firefighters are truly remarkable people. A small rural department has very little of the glamour and limelight associated with the Hollywood firefighter. It's mostly hard, dirty, thankless - and sometimes dangerous -work. These people drop what they are doing at a moment's notice, pull on their turnouts, and respond with whatever is available. They often know they aren't going to be able to save as much as people want them too, and there's a good chance they might not get any appreciation for being awakened at 2:00 AM, but they still stick with the jobs. Most of the volunteers in NW Ontario do it for half the pay of a gas jockey . . . if they get any pay at all. Hats off to all of you guys and gals. I have a personal peeve that volunteer firefighters don't get the support they deserve from government. If you want my full, humorous opinion (with a barb attached), click here. If you want a more educated opinion, click here.

I've heard that digital vigilantes are making it difficult to post comments on this blog, under the pretext of protecting me from spammers. I think I fixed the problem, but I'm not sure. If you want to comment and are having trouble, you can send me an email at

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Spring, that ever elusive (and sometimes deceptive) fairy has sent many letters of intent, and even a promise or two that she will come to warm our cold corner of the planet. But now we have the ultimate assurance that she's serious, and that winter isn't going to last until next October. The ice went off of Lang Lake a few days ago. This is a clear demarcation point between Winter and Summer. An easy event to measure and document. Last week we were ice fishing. Now we're casting our lines from a boat. It's a great feeling to drive by the lake and see the ice gone, but someone needs to inform Star Command, or whoever runs the weather, that hello, enough of the white stuff falling from the sky. Didn't anyone tell you that Spring officially starts on March 21st?

Spring has a dancing partner that sometimes comes around this time of year. Wildland fire season. Of course, in years like this, the partner doesn't always want to party. Wildfire doesn't like dancing in the snow. So while we watch the news about California going up in smoke, I guess we should pull on our toques, grab a snowshovel, and be thankful that we aren't cursed with all of that nice, warm weather that grows oranges and attracts vacationers to the beach. It would be nice to see a little balance though. I'm sure the orange trees and vacationers wouldn't mind a little rain, and we could sure use some sunshine. If only I were in charge of the weather.

If you want to to see what happens when you mix winter stuff with spring, click here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


You may have noticed that I posted a link to some photos that I've put on Flikr. Some are mine, others are courtesy of someone else. If you want to see good photos, visit my brother's site or Paul Lantz's site. My site has some of their shots as well, used by permission.

I'm not much of a photographer. I just kind of point the camera in the general direction and push the button. When I was in Japan I used a very cheap Hanmex camera. I once made the mistake of telling someone that photography was my "hobby." "Really?" he says. "It's my hobby too! I have . . . " and he starts listing off his arsenal of fancy equipment, lenses, filters . . . When he finally took a breath I mumbled something like, "I guess the word hobby was a bit too strong . . . I just like taking pictures."

I would like to post more pictures of calls we've been to, but there are privacy and liability issues to contend with. It seems that someone might use a microscope to examine the photo of a train wreck and see some personal information. Then they'll say, "Hey, that's my train wreck. And I'm going to sue you and all of your nosy, Peeping Tom viewers for invading my privacy . . ." My point of view is that the train wreck (or car crash, or fire) happened very publicly, so what's the big deal? But no one listens to me. I guess one option would be to post a disclaimer saying "to proceed to this photo page you must attest that you will not look too closely at the photographs so that no personal information will be identified. If you agree to these terms, click 'Yes.'" Of course everyone always clicks yes, and no one reads the disclaimer.

So the real fire pictures are going to be few and far between. Not that training fires aren't real . . . and I do have a few of those. Photos from emergency scenes often tend to be lame anyway. Usually when the action is really good, no one is thinking, "Wow, what an awesome photo that would make!" Or if they are, their hands are too full of hoses, axes and ladders to do anything about it. So you'll have to be content looking at what I have to offer, or go to someone else's photo site, which isn't a bad idea actually. There are some pretty cool fire pics out there. Click here to go to my site, then click the arrow next to the search button and select "everyone's photos." Type "fire" into the search box and you'll get lots of nice shots taken by folks that actually know how to use a camera.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

the epic struggle

The other day I looked at my desk and decided it was time for decisive action. Actually, I tried to look at my desk. It was buried under heaps of paper. Reports, training records, applications for funding, firefighter precourse material. All of it important stuff. My philosophy has always been "keep it out where you can see it so you don't forget to do it."

I come by my disorganized clerical style honestly. My dad worked from a home office and carefully guarded his desk from attempts by my mom to straighten it out. He called it a "nice, orderly mess." I can forgive you for thinking that we're slobs because you've probably never read this scientifically researched study that proves that us disorganized folks are actually more efficient than you obsessive-compulsive neat freaks. You don't believe me. Okay, click here. Now do you believe me? I didn't think so.

On this particular day, I didn't believe me either. Enough was enough. Time to attack the desk. This sudden change of heart wasn't because of my deep inner tidiness bursting out. Rather, I suddenly saw all of that paper as the symbol of bureaucratic, red-tape evil that fire chief's face on a daily basis. Never mind the dragons of disaster that we're supposed to be slaying. The beast was right here in my office, staring me in the face, and the day of reckoning had come. It would be an epic struggle. Human against Big Brother. Superman against Lex Luther. His evil Krytonite was sitting on my desk. Armed with new resolve, I would be paralyzed no more.

Paper flew everywhere. I signed and read and stapled and organized (shudder) and chucked (hooray!). The trash can was full. The shredder overflowed. The file cabinet was stuffed with useless documents. Old Lex was shaking in his boots. My desk was at last free from the scourge of bureaucratic domination.

When it was over I sat down in my squeaky office chair and looked at my immaculate desk with a sigh. I was surprised. It felt good to be organized. Wow, I could actually say the word without choking. O r g a n i z e d. Now I can really get some work done around here. Let's see, where's that half finished report that was due yesterday on pain of cruel and unusual punishment. It used to be right here on the side next to the shredder. The shredder. Uh-oh.

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