When the call came in
The Banff Fire Department receives hundreds of calls every year to deal with fire and rescue situations. They mainly seem to come in the middle of the night or when the weather is at its worst. Whenever the pagers go off, the volunteer firefighters pay special attention to the key words “structure fire.” Due to the fact that Banff is a very compact town, a fire in one structure can potentially spread to another structure very quickly.
At around 2:30 AM on December 29, the beeping of my pager pulled me from my deep slumber. It read: “structure fire: Mount Royal Hotel.” In swift, auto-pilot move, I got dressed and hopped in my car for the short drive to the fire hall, listening to the ongoing updates as I drove. Our Pump Truck (Pump 62) was already out and on its way to the rear of the hotel. Our Ariel Truck (Ariel 62) rolled up and headed for the front side. Arriving at the hall, I jumped into my gear and boarded Engine 62. At this point, only six minutes had passed since my pager had gone off.
I have worked with Brewster Travel Canada as the Vice President of Operations for more than two years. I have spent hundreds of hours working with the hospitality team to make improvements to the Mount Royal Hotel. We have renovated many areas to enhance the hotel itself, and to improve the experience for guests. As we rolled to the rear of the property to “catch a hydrant” and support the team on scene, I had no time to think of this. Fire was visible on the roof of the building and we had a lot of work to do.
Every fire is different, but we train to ensure our search and plan of attack are quick, and that we work as a team to ensure that we keep each other safe. The other teams on scene were quick to deploy to fight the fire on the roof from the top of the building. We joined them to begin a search of the hotel and we readied hoses to prepare for an interior attack on the fourth floor of the building.
Fortunately, the Mount Royal Security and Maintenance Team had done a great job of exiting guests from the building and were taking care of them while the firefighters got to work. The team attacking the fire was battling to suppress it as it began to gain hold of the roof. It took time for the fire to begin to affect the fourth floor. Shortly thereafter, smoke began to fill the hallways and rooms and we tore through the ceiling to attack the fire with our hose lines. Time became a blur as we attacked the fire again and again; from the roof and then from the interior, and then from the roof again.
At times, as we pulled back to a safe point to allow the team to attack the exterior, I had a chance to look at what was becoming of the hotel we had worked so hard to improve. The new carpet was several inches deep with water. Doors were splintered. Walls had been torn apart and were now on fire. Just for a few seconds, my thoughts lingered and then I snapped back to my current situation.
The fire department is a brother and sisterhood and we take care of one another. At some point, our brothers and sisters from the towns along the Bow Valley began to arrive. Departments from Canmore, Lake Louise and Exshaw made welcome additions to our team. Wet, frozen gear and the intense activity had begun to fatigue the Banff team, so the arrival of our neighbors meant we could start to take short breaks to recover.
After around 10 hours of fighting, the fire that had destroyed a section of the roof and 12 rooms of the hotel was brought to bay. The team had successfully evacuated 297 guests! We began to pack up our gear and reconstitute our trucks. As I busied myself checking and reassembling my breathing apparatus, the Deputy Chief walked over to me. He said, “Hey Stu, you have other things to be doing, you should get going.” It was 1pm at this point and he was right, I did.
About 25 minutes later, I had washed off the dirt and smoke, changed my clothes and joined the Brewster leadership team in our Incident Command Centre. I quickly learned that starting at 2:30am, the team had sprung into action. They had deployed our motorcoaches to move guests to our sister hotel, opened restaurants to feed guests and managed to relocate 297 people in just three hours. Over the next few days, the team rallied to provide emergency assistance and food to guests.
At the same time, they painstakingly searched room after room to try and recover guests’ belongings and valuables. The hotel staff wanted to find everything that could be salvaged to help guests recover from their ordeal – passports, wedding rings, teddy bears. After three long days (and one more night of firefighting to deal with a flare up), the team was finally able to declare that we had recovered everything. We were then able to return these items to the relieved and thankful guests. It was 5:30pm on New Year’s Eve and it was time for a well-deserved beer and some (much-needed) quality time with family and friends!
Although the fire that broke out on December 29 was a very unfortunate incident, Brewster Travel Canada is very thankful that no one was injured or harmed. Our heartfelt thanks go out to the Mount Royal Hotel staff, all four regional fire departments, first responders and the entire Banff community for the incredible effort to ensure everyone’s safety and well-being.
We are committed to rebuilding and reopening one of Banff’s most iconic hotels as steadfastly as possible. You may subscribe to our newsletter to receive renovation updates and other information related to the reopening of the new Mount Royal Hotel.
About the Author: Stuart Back is the Vice President of Operations at Brewster Travel Canada and is a volunteer firefighter for the Banff Fire Department.