A shed to the rescue

November 28, 2023

The Chéticamp Fire Department doesn’t just serve the community it’s named after, but rather a region that stretches all the way from French Mountain to MacKenzie Mountain. In other words, these volunteers have, for many years now, included the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in their territory.

Parks Canada has highly trained and well-equipped teams of rescue specialists that can bring in helicopters for truly hazardous and hard-to-reach incidents, but those teams are maintained off-site and are rarely called to the Highlands. Instead, the Park has an agreement with the Chéticamp Fire Department. Five to 10 times a year the local volunteer force is called to the park to handle injuries on the trails or to put out car fires, building fires and small forest fires.

Recently, members of the Chéticamp Fire Department volunteered their time and collective skills to construct a new building that now houses their rescue truck. Wayne Chiasson, the fire chief, modestly refers to this building as a “shed,” although at 30 by 40 feet, it’s more like a very substantial garage.

In the past, the department squeezed its three- quarter-ton rescue truck into the main hall along with the massive fire engines. This meant there was barely enough room to walk around the vehicles, never mind service and maintain them. The shed gives the department some breathing room.

In addition to the rescue truck, there’s even room for a seven-foot by twelve-foot trailer, designed
to carry the department’s rescue sled. This sled, purchased for $10,000 in 2021 with funds donated by local benefactor, Pierre Leblanc, is like a mini ambulance. Five feet by eight feet long, it’s essentially an enclosed pod that can fit both a patient and a paramedic.

Firefighters can outfit the sled with interchangeable skis or wheels, making it a versatile all-season piece of rescue equipment. This allows firefighters to tow it to and from remote areas with snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and bring people to safety no matter what time of year it is. Since acquiring the sled, the fire department has deployed it twice, once on the Skyline Trail and once on a backwoods road. Both times the sled was equipped with its ATV wheels.

Asked if he’s concerned about the increase in wildfires across the country, including mainland Nova Scotia, Chiasson notes that the local forests seem resistant to burning.

“There was a small forest fire on Chéticamp Island about 15 years ago and we were very worried,” he recalls. “We thought the whole island might burn. But by the time we got there, it had put itself out after burning about 30 square feet of forest.”

“I don’t know if it’s the humidity here or the type of trees, but they don’t light up for some reason,” Chiasson adds. “Also, people around here are very prudent, and we don’t have many grass fires.”

He says he’s more concerned about potential injuries at the Gypsum Mine, a popular local swimming spot.

“People take risks,” he says, “and there are more and more people swimming there, so we think it’s just a matter of time before somebody gets hurt. We train there regularly so we can be ready if that happens.”

Luckily, the all-volunteer force includes four paramedics with P3 certification, the highest level of medical first responder training. The rest of the team is composed of carpenters, mechanics, and fishers. As for the chief, when he’s not responding to emergencies, he’s responsible for maintenance at the Chéticamp Hospital.

Lately, emergency calls have been few and far between.

“It’s been a little boring,” Chiasson says, “but that’s a good thing.”

Pierre LeBlanc (shown at right) donated most of the funds for the fire department’s new rescue sled. Here he receives thanks from department captain Shawn LeBlanc. Photo courtesy Chéticamp Volunteer Fire Department