Fallen firefighters remembered with Victoria memorial

New bronze memorial unveiled at legislature after mass march Wednesday

Bev Jennings Bazin

There are few professions more dangerous than firefighting, and even fewer that create a universal bond transcending cities, provinces and international borders.

Victoria Fire Department Lt. Gary Birtwhistle recalls that many of his colleagues flew to Manhattan in the wake of 9/11 to offer support to the hundreds of families attending funerals.

“It’s very moving, especially for us, because you obviously relate it to your brothers and sisters that you work with,” said Birtwhistle, who also serves as secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Fire Fighters Union local 730.

On Wednesday, more than 500 firefighters from across B.C. marched proudly and sombrely down Belleville and Government streets for their biennial commemoration of those lost in the line of duty.

Premier Christy Clark and the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association then unveiled a bronze fallen firefighter statue that will permanently stand on the rear legislature grounds.

A national firefighters memorial was created last year in Ottawa at the site of that city’s great fire of 1900, but B.C. had no formal recognition of the sacrifices made by the province’s firefighters until now.

B.C. artist Dean Lauze was commissioned by the provincial government to create the work.

“It’s important for both paid and unpaid firefighters,” said Darren Blackwell, local 730 president. “It’s honouring our fallen brothers and sisters.”

While more than 1,000 on-duty deaths have been documented in Canada over the past 160 years, Victoria hasn’t suffered a fatality since 1947, when Leonard Harper fell from a ladder during a training exercise at the Yates Street fire hall. There have been four VFD deaths since its inception in 1858.

Birtwhistle said firefighters have fought hard recently to gain recognition for particular cancer-related deaths due to fire exposure.

“If we do get certain types of cancers, it is presumed to be part of our occupation,” he said. “It means a lot to us that it was presumed to be in the line of duty. I’d say we still get one guy a month passing away from cancer.”

dpalmer@vicnews.com