After living with a pager on his hip for 40 years – more recently, a cellphone app that buzzes whenever there’s an emergency – former White Rock fire Chief Phil Lemire is looking forward to some peace and quiet.
Friday (May 29), Lemire left his White Rock Fire Department office for the last time, turning over the keys to incoming chief Ed Wolfe.
Since joining the department in 1980, Lemire has been at the forefront of some the most significant disasters in the City of White Rock’s history.
When there was a call for help – whether it was a devastating flood that turned Marine Drive into a canal, a raging fire that devastated the Five Corners neighbourhood, or a vicious windstorm that ripped apart the White Rock Pier – Lemire was there.
Lemire first got a taste of crisis management in 1999, seven years before he was named chief.
In June of that year, a downpour and hailstorm caused havoc in lower White Rock, overwhelming sewers and blowing storm covers off their mountings. Businesses flooded, homes were evacuated and people were told not to flush their toilets or drink the water.
According to Environment Canada, the storm dumped 200 mm of pea-sized hail and an extra 70 mm of rain in less than four hours, creating flash floods and mudslides. At its height, the water was more than 1.5 metres deep.
It was an all-hands-on-deck emergency, however, Lemire’s seniors were out of town at a conference.
“It was a little bit of… thrown right into the mix as far as the overall management of the event. Fortunately, it was a fairly short duration, but the impact was with the community for a while,” Lemire told Peace Arch News in an interview Monday.
Lemire developed a knack for being thrown into major events. Just as he was transitioning to the role of deputy chief in 1996, there was a large apartment fire on Merklin Street. Lemire’s responsibility was to conduct the fire investigation – the first time he had done so.
“It ended up being fairly significant event because it did go to trial and there was a charge and conviction of the individual responsible. That was quite an indoctrination into the investigation side as well, with that event,” he said.
In 2016, Lemire and his crew faced one of the toughest challenges in the fire department’s history – the Five Corners fire.
An arsonist, who has not yet been arrested, set fire to an under-construction condominium complex on Pacific Avenue. The fire swept through the neighbourhood, leaving nearly 100 residents homeless and a number of business owners grappling with devastating damage.
“There’s no doubt the Five Corners fire would be the biggest fire in the city’s history,” he said, adding that four buildings were involved.
Pumping out 400 litres of water every second for six hours straight, the city nearly ran out of water, putting residents on a boil-water advisory.
The only injury came after a person tripped over a fire hose.
“Aside from that, there wasn’t any injuries, per se. So that in itself was quite incredible. Quite incredible considering the sort of scale of the event.”
Certainly, Lemire says, incidents that involve fatalities will never escape his mind. However, other moments that will stay with him forever are when victims come back to the fire hall and express appreciation.
Lemire recalled attending a bad car accident where he helped save a victim. Every year afterward, the person stopped by the fire hall to simply say “thank you.”
On another occasion, Lemire’s crew provided CPR to a victim and brought him back to life.
“It’s always pretty cool to see someone knock on your door and say, ‘I was that person… and your crew brought me back’.”
Being a firefighter has become the fabric that’s woven into his identity. The position comes with a level of respectability that needs to be upheld, whether on the clock or not, he explained. Even when he wasn’t at work, Lemire knew that – on some level – he was “always on.”
That’s been even more apparent recently, he explained. Dispatch technology for local firefighters has changed in recent months. Instead of relying on a pager, firefighters receive an emergency alert on their smart device when it’s time to suit up and sound the alarms.
“Now not only would you have your pager go off, but you’d also have your phone go off, and if your iPad was near, it would go off as well – multiple alarms. So, yeah, those are things that I’m happy to have turned off now – my time is my time,” he said.
Although he retired on Friday, he’d actually planned to hang up his turnout gear for good earlier in the year, but that was put off because of COVID-19.
“Just thinking, the last event that sort of extended my tenure with the city, I probably would never have thought we’d be going through a pandemic,” Lemire said.
COVID-19 restrictions put a “slightly different twist” on his retirement plans. His daughter, Alisha, set up a dinner for six at home, along with a Zoom meeting with friends and family.
It may not have been a major retirement celebration, but Lemire seemed quite happy with the result.
“It was fun, unique and suitable for the times,” he said.