'What they saved, not what they lost'
By Ron Devitt - Staff Reporter
A Coquitlam firefighter is back from a volunteer stint in his hometown of Kelowna.
Stu Aspinall returned from his hometown of Kelowna a changed person this week.
Aspinall, a career firefighter with 16 years to his credit with Coquitlam Fire and Rescue, was among the first team of volunteers from the Coquitlam department to help out in the fire-ravaged Interior.
A second volunteer crew left Monday morning.
Aspinall grew up in Kelowna, and his mother and mother-in-law still live in the Okanagan city.
"Obviously when this was going on, there were a couple extra heartstrings being pulled," Aspinall told The NOW Monday morning.
When Aspinall and his Coquitlam colleagues left for the Interior Thursday morning, he was hoping they would be deployed in the city where he spent his first 22 years, including three years as a volunteer firefighter. But they were, instead, sent to Naramata, another hot spot located between Kelowna and Penticton.
Aspinall had finished his two, 12-hour shifts in Naramata, but had heard the harrowing stories coming out of Kelowna from firefighters who stood in the teeth of the wind-fueled fire storms that swept through the city Friday night.
Rather than returning to Coquitlam with his crew, Aspinall stayed on and went to Kelowna to continue the fight.
"It was a pretty amazing thing to see and an amazing thing to be a part of," Aspinall said. "Hats off to the Kelowna guys. They never had a break and they're not giving up."
He was assigned to a volunteer crew from Comox, which was deployed in the Mission neighbourhood, one of the hardest hit areas in Kelowna. Their job was to knock down hot spots, not far from the neighbourhood where Aspinall grew up.
"I drove around my old home area and the house I grew up in was still standing, but the one beside it wasn't, and the ones behind it were gone," he said.
He said he was filled with a sense of relief at seeing his boyhood home still standing, but also sadness at seeing much of his old neighbourhood destroyed.
"I kind of expected my house to be gone," he said. "I've never been to a war, but when they describe it as a war zone, it totally looks that way."
He could only imagine the intensity and heat of the firestorm that swept through some of the neighbourhoods.
"There's so much activity and devastation all in one place, I couldn't even begin to understand what the guys went through the night before," he said.
He said he never felt his life was in danger while he was fighting the fires, but can imagine what the firefighters felt when the wind changed and they were surrounded by walls of fire.
"I have no idea what those guys saw with the firestorms."
He said firefighters are used to showing up at a house fire and quickly assessing a plan to save the it. Instead, they were forced to decide which homes they would have to let burn so they could save others.
"The idea of letting a house burn is not even in our makeup, and having to watch hundreds of homes burn in their own community ..." he said. "They have to be reminded of what they saved and not what they lost."
Aspinall was also struck by the way emergency services, disaster relief agencies, private corporations and individual volunteers all pitched in to help each other.
"There's a million stories of people going out of their way to help out up there," he said, downplaying his own volunteer contributions. "I just wanted to help."
He recalls standing in a staging area in the Mission area of Kelowna, where new firefighters were preparing to relieve others coming off shift. An RCMP patrol car pulled up and a burly officer emerged.
"He got out and looked at us," Aspinall said. "His eyes welled up and said, "You guys saved my house last night. You guys rock.'"
He said even with hundreds of people contributing to the firefighting efforts, it will ultimately be up to Mother Nature as to when the battle of the blazes will be won.
He said firefighters gladly accept small amounts of rain, but it's always bittersweet when it's accompanied by lightning.
"I'm glad I was able to contribute. If I could have done more and stayed longer, I would have," he said.
Aspinall was also struck by how dry the forest is. He said he and another firefighter had no problem lifting a 700- to 800-pound stump because it was so dry.
He watched as 80- to- 100-foot trees burned from bottom to top in a matter of seconds.
"There's this huge flash of very intense heat, light and the sound it makes from its own wind it creates," he said.
The father of two said if he is needed again on his next days off, he will likely go.
"I've learned so much every day in this job, but on this one I learned stuff and saw stuff I hope I never have to see again," Aspinall said. "It was amazing. It's something I'll never forget."