The North Sydney advanced-care paramedic was 10 days into a three-week stint helping battle the devastating wildfires in British Columbia when her dispatcher told her there was an urgent situation: a female firefighter was down with a broken ankle deep in the woods and couldn’t be extricated. Jesty would have to drive into the heart of the fire and tend to the patient until a helicopter could arrive.
“It was literally like the scene from a movie. It was hard to believe that this was really happening to me,” Jesty, 42, recalled Wednesday while on call in Miocene, B.C., an evacuated community just outside Williams Lake. “There’s a helicopter flying overhead. There were literally trees torching on either side of me, so there was open flame. It was the call of my career.”
By the time Jesty and her driver arrived, firefighters had dragged the victim, who was in considerable pain, out of the woods in a makeshift stretcher they’d fashioned together by running the sleeves of their shirts through branches. They’d even braced her ankle with a chainsaw guard.
“When I got there it was kind of surreal. There’s a helicopter flying above and I’m down on my hands and knees, doing my assessment, starting my IV. I’m giving morphine to make the patient more comfortable for extrication. And it happened so fast — the helicopter is landing for me to put her in, and they flew her and I out to the hospital.”
Fortunately, most days were far less exciting, said Jesty, who returns to Cape Breton this week. She said the firefighters are skilled at what they do and used to the environment, so the injuries are what she’d anticipated.
“I would have expected inhalation problems, or burns, or anything of that nature, but we’re getting dust in the eyes, or a little cut on the hand, with the ankle being the only thing we’ve had of any sort of urgent nature.”
Although she describes the destruction caused by the wildfires as “enough to make you cry,” Jesty said the sense of community in the “tent city” set up at the Williams Lake airport has made the experience more rewarding.
“There’s something amazing about it. There are people literally from all over the world. We have firefighters from Australia, from New Zealand, from Mexico, from all over Canada. I was fortunate enough to run into people from Nova Scotia, and that was great,” she said. “So after we’re done for the day, we go back to camp and it’s magnificent. There’s groups of people doing yoga, there’s people playing hacky sack, there’s some people playing volleyball. Somebody usually puts some sort of music on. It’s amazing. I’ve made new friends from all over the world.”
Jesty has also made many four-legged friends while in B.C. Because the area was evacuated so quickly, many farmers left the barn doors and fences open so their livestock could escape if the fire broke through.
Jesty, who owns horses, said she’s been stopping to share water, food and some human interaction to all of the animals she encounters.
“When I came here, I turned up to the road and there’s just horses running free,” she said. “They’re walking down the highway, they’re on the sides of the road. I’ve seen everything from horses, to goats, to llamas, cats and dogs, and my heart went out them.”
Jesty was actually taking care of her horses when a medical company she’d worked for as a paramedic in the Alberta oilfields phoned to ask if she’d be interested in going to B.C. to help with the wildfires.
“I just jumped at it and said ‘Oh my god yes.’ I finished up my chores and booked my flight and was on the plane the next day,” she said, noting that it’s been one of the most memorable experiences of her life.
“I was a paramedic in Pittsburgh so there were some dicey calls down there with shootings and stabbings and everything else that happens in a big city, but this was intense. Although the level of acuity wasn’t that bad — I’ve dealt with much sicker patients in a much more critical state — it was just the environment around me with the smoke and the firefighters and the flames on either side and the helicopter in the background, it was an amazing call for me and it is something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”