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Valley firefighter first on scene testifies house fire out of control

By Keith Lacey The Hanmer fire which claimed three lives 16 months ago was so badly out of control, the first volunteer firefighter on the scene doubts anything could have been done to save those lives.
By Keith Lacey

The Hanmer fire which claimed three lives 16 months ago was so badly out of control, the first volunteer firefighter on the scene doubts anything could have been done to save those lives.

An emotional Ron Menard, a volunteer firefighter with the Valley East Fire Department for the past 21 years, arrived on the scene ?within two minutes? after he received a page a fire had broken out at 4141 Roy St. around 12:15 pm April 22, 2001.

The fire claimed the lives of Asha-Jade McLean, 3, her brother Ellias McLean, 4, and their great-grandmother Pearl Shaw, 75.

Menard told a coroner?s inquest Tuesday he tried repeatedly to get inside the burning home before and after fire crews arrived and the intense heat and thick smoke shocked him because he had arrived so quickly.

?This fire was so advanced, so, so advanced?when I got there,? said Menard.

He didn?t have a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when he arrived, but Menard was emphatic it likely wouldn?t have helped that day.

?You need an awful lot of fire equipment to suppress a fire,? he said. ?Even if I had breathing apparatus, it would have been very dangerous to get past the door.?

Established regular protocol would normally have seen him go to an unmanned Hanmer fire hall that day to see if fire trucks were on their way, but he was only seconds away so decided to grab his fire suppression suit and head directly for Roy Street, said Menard.

When he arrived, he saw ?lots and lots of smoke? billowing from rear windows.

Even without proper equipment, he stepped inside and yelled to see if anyone was inside, but heard no response. He had to leave quickly due to intense heat and overbearing smoke, he said.

Several neighbours have testified it took too long for fire trucks and crews to arrive

Menard wouldn?t deny he said words to the effect of ?where?s the fire truck? after his first attempt to get inside.
However, it?s his belief all emergency personnel?and concerned neighbours?involved in fighting the fire that day acted heroically and beyond the call of duty.

Valley East volunteer firefighters are very well trained as he?s undergone regular training ever since he signed on in 1981, said Menard.

Once fire crews arrived and he put on an SCBA, Menard testified he went inside the house for 15 to 20 minutes using a fire hose, but the fire was out of control.

He refilled his oxygen bottle and went back inside with another volunteer firefighter, but his bottle ran out again
after trying to suppress flames and smoke for another 15 to 20 minute stint near the basement of the home, he said.

?This was a typical intense structural fire that was badly out of control,? said Menard.

When asked if he had any recommendations to make to the inquest jury, Menard said he believes the integrity of the Valley fire department should be maintained with volunteers working alongside full-timers.

He also wanted to know how the fire started and why it took so long for it to be reported to emergency personnel.

Menard was emphatic all Valley East volunteer firefighters receive quality and thorough training.

?I don?t want people to blame this fire on response time,? he said. ?Something went wrong that day. I was there within minutes. Response time was not the issue. I?m proud of this fire department and the guys and neighbours who worked on it that day.

?We?re all lucky to have a composite fire department in the Valley?everything was done to the best of our abilities that day.?

Menard broke into tears when an inquest juror asked him why his testimony was so emotional and why this fire has affected him so strongly.

?Because I?m a family man,? he said.

Jim Bergeron, the full-time Valley East Fire Department staff who sent out the page to all volunteers that tragic day, testified while volunteers do train hard and perform an admirable job at all times, relying so strongly on volunteers is tantamount to playing Russian roulette.

Bergeron has been criticized by some neighbours for driving the pumper truck he was in too slowly once he arrived on Roy Street that day.

Bergeron testified he was only driving slowly because smoke was so thick from the fire he could only see inches in front of him.

?I couldn?t live with myself? if a child had run across the street chasing a ball and he hit them with the fire truck, he said.

Some neighbours have testified it seemed to take too long for fire trucks and personnel to arrive, but Bergeron said emergency personnel did their jobs properly in getting to the fire as quickly as possible.

The inquest continues today.