Firefighter's faith grows stronger after battle with 'the Beast'

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Firefighter's faith grows stronger after battle with 'the Beast'

Firefighter's faith grows stronger after battle with 'the Beast'

For Lucas Welsh, fighting "the Beast" was a kind of personal reckoning. 

The wildfire that struck Fort McMurray last May tested the limits of his skills as a firefighter, and challenged his belief in God.

"When I look back at that time," said Welsh, who is also a part-time pastor at Fort City Church, "I didn't lose my faith. I didn't lose trust in God.

"I don't look back at it as a failure of my faith, or a stumbling block," he said in an interview with CBC News on the eve of the disaster's anniversary. "It was an opportunity to refine it, grow it, to experience the faithfulness of a God who  — even in the midst in the craziest of experience — still carries us.

"My faith is stronger, my trust in my God and my community is bigger because of it. It was earned in those scary and tough moments."

"The Beast" roared into the northern Alberta city on May 3, 2016. On that hot, hazy afternoon, howling winds whipped the wildfire into an inferno.

Welsh was at the fire hall, having lunch with his colleagues, when a blaring alarm announced the fire's arrival within city limits. Radios crackled and beeped with foreboding messages.  

"It was basically this frantic, chaotic call for us to empty our hall and send all of our resources, which has never happened before," Welsh said.

"That, right away, sent off some warning bells."

A trailer park near the highway was already being devoured, and a south-end neighbourhood was at risk.

When Welsh and his crew arrived, it was too late to fight the fire. They were told to knock on doors instead and evacuate residents from the area.

The road was flanked by flames, the sun blotted out by raining ash as panicked families packed belongings and fled.

'It was too dangerous'

"What was really weird, for us, was driving by fire on our way there and not stopping to put it out," he said. "That was really unnatural for us.

"We wanted to fight the fire that was in that area. But we couldn't. It was too dangerous. There wasn't enough trucks, and there wasn't enough guys."

By nightfall, the entire city was on mandatory evacuation order, as the wildfire charged into neighbourhoods, wiping out entire streets.  

It struck so suddenly that firefighters felt powerless.

"We were surrounded, and that was something that nobody anticipated … it was something that caught us off guard.

"We were totally overtaxed, we were sending a single truck and a single crew of guys to fight neighbourhood fires. It was not anything that anyone could have planned for or been prepared for."

Welsh spent that first night on the outskirts of his own neighbourhood, cutting down burning trees in an area where he often played with his young sons.

"To be in a place where I walk with the kids, where we ride our bikes, thinking we might lose it all, it was incredibly surreal," said Welsh, who is thankful his children didn't see him as they evacuated.

'My whole life is here'

A year later, Fort McMurray remains a city divided, he said.

While some evacuees rebuild their lives, those who lost homes or livelihoods, those who suffer psychological scars, remain in a kind of limbo.

"A lot of people think of Fort McMurray as just a stop on their journey to somewhere else," he said. "But this place is home for me. I grew up here. My whole life is here.

The fire showed Welsh just how resilient faith can be. He is now using his role at the church to help those who are struggling.

"There are a lot of people in my life who ended up losing everything, and seeing them is always a constant reminder that there was a failure on our end," he said. "I definitely feel the failure, I definitely feel the guilt."

He knows firefighters did everything they could do, but knowing that doesn't make it easier to reconcile the losses.

"There are some people who are definitely struggling and trying to figure out what it means to live in a post-fire world here in Fort McMurray," he said. "If you talk about moving on, you cannot forget that there is a big chunk of our city that cannot move on yet."