(First published in the Rocky View Weekly on May 17, 2016)
As kids growing up in Crossfield, Steve Sackett, 31, and Cody Havens, 30, were inseparable.
They rode quads and snowmobiles together, graduated from W.G. Murdoch High School and followed an identical path towards a career as firefighters.
They both left Crossfield to follow their shared passion for helping others.
It wasn’t until nine years later when a wildfire blazed through Sackett’s community of Fort McMurray that Havens drove from Edmonton and they fought fires together for the very first time.
“To do that with your best friend is pretty awesome for sure,” Sackett said.
Coming off of a night shift the morning of May 3, Sackett stood on his Fort McMurray garage watching the rising smoke only a kilometre in the distance.
He said he watched for about 20 minutes before deciding to head back into the fire hall to voluntarily start another long shift.
“The wind changed and it started heading straight into town,” he said. “Twenty minutes later, chaos started.”
He worked with a pump crew to fight what Sackett said was a career’s worth of fires in the next two days.
In the early morning of May 3, he said he saw the fire burn through the trees and start lighting up houses.
It was at that point the crew, who were only in a pickup truck, leapfrogged from house to house, knocking on doors and pulling as many people and pets out before those houses lit on fire.
“We did whatever we could just to get everyone the hell out,” Sackett said.
At one point throughout the long days he said he saw thick smoke rising from his street and knew his home had gone up in flames.
Other firefighters went through the same ordeal, he said, with some even working their own communities watching their houses and neighbours’ homes burn.
“That’s when it kinda hit home,” he said.
It was on May 6 that Sackett got a call from his good friend Havens, but he said the call seemed off at the time.
He heard his voice both on the cell phone and in the air of the fire hall before realizing his friend was there and ready to fight fires with him for the very first time.
As the bulk of the fire moved past Fort McMurray by the time Havens got there, he said the two quickly got to work dousing spot fires.
The two friends would always share stories with each other of fighting fires whenever they had a chance, but they said Fort McMurray stands as one of the craziest for both of them.
At the scene of a house fire, the crew tried to hook into a hydrant but quickly realized there was no water pressure, Sackett said.
The fire raged on as they waited for a tanker truck to roll in, Havens said, and when it got there it was an industrial one that didn’t have proper hookups. The water from the tanker had to be dumped in their truck, he said, which caused even more delay as the crew watched the fire spread.
“Just getting water was really tough,” Havens said.
Sackett knew his friend was a good firefighter, but he said without ever working next to him he didn’t fully understand how good he really was.
Without hesitation, he said Havens went from the end of the nozzle to taking over his job of operating the pump when he was dealing with the tankers.
“It doesn’t matter where you put him, he can go to work,” Sackett said.
Havens stayed with the crew until May 9 and said even that amount of time made him downright tired.
He said he gained immense respect for all of the Fort McMurray firefighters who spent three tireless days working 17-hour shifts to save their community before he even got there.
“(Sackett’s) a damn hero, and same with every single one of those Fort Mac guys,” Havens said. “Those are your heroes right there.”
In the end though, the two friends had to admit they enjoyed the experience they shared together.
As heartbreaking as the fire that blazed through Fort McMurray was, Sackett said as firefighters, this is what they are trained to do and enjoy doing it.
“It’s sad to say this, but I kinda loved every minute of it because I got to work with my close friend and do what we do best,” Havens said.