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Top photo: Members of the Canadian Armed Forces teamed up with BC firefighters this summer to fight fires such as the White Rock Lake Fire. (Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service.)

For most of Matthew Heneghan’s life, he has been the one who shows up during a crisis.

During his adolescent years, he stood by his single mother as she battled one cancer diagnosis after another. Right out of high school, Matthew joined the Canadian Armed Forces and served for six years. More recently he worked as a paramedic in Edmonton and Toronto responding to 911 calls. 

But when an approaching wildfire forced Matthew to evacuate his home this summer, the tables were turned. 

“It was very confusing for me,” Matthew says. “I open the door and I am confronting guys dressed in uniform. I’m used to being the one who is helping people through chaos.”

Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service from the summer fighting the White Rock Lake Fire.

Matthew lives in Falkland, British Columbia. Falkland is a small ranching community in between Vernon and Kamloops along Highway 97. Around 600 people live there, including Matthew. He moved there two years ago to live with his girlfriend, Sheena, a born and raised Falklander.

“Falkland is this really character driven place,” Matthew says. “The people here are kind, hard working and no nonsense kind of people. It’s a beautiful area and it’s quiet, which I really, really love.” 

The quiet thickened this August when Falkland residents followed an evacuation order and were forced to desert their homes and their community. The mammoth White Rock Lake Fire — a blaze that burned over 80,000 hectares of land and destroyed dozens of homes and buildings — was headed their way. 

“My friend Steven and I were out playing golf and I was saying I didn’t think we’d actually get evacuated. ” Matthew remembers. “Later on that evening, that’s when the door knock happened.” 

Memories spark up 

Matthew was born in England and moved to Canada when he was five years old. He grew up in Salmon Arm — a city an hour’s drive northeast of Falkland. It isn’t the first fire he’s experienced while living here.

“I was in Salmon Arm in 1998 when evacuation orders came in.” Matthew was a teenager at the time. “It was really serious, it was in our backdoor. When I looked out my bedroom window you could still see smoke and flames shooting out from Mount Aida.” 

Canadian troops worked closely with firefighters in the Okanagan this August. (Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service.)

Watching flames from home or smelling smoke everywhere caused many British Columbians to feel anxious this year. For Matthew, however, there was an added level of concern. 

“The whole summer has been really challenging because I don’t typically do well with smoke. It brings back some things for me,” he explains.  “It doesn’t smell like a structure fire, but it’s the thickness of the air that is reminiscent. Then hearing emergency radios from fire crews outside. You see the flashing lights and so many things are happening at once.”

The ‘things’ Matthew is referring to are the memories he has accumulated over a life and career. Memories that haunt him still today.

“I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in early 2017,” Matthew says. “And in late 2017 my mom died.”

The making of a medic 

As a teenager Matthew couldn’t have known what personal costs his career would later bring, but he was certain the army was for him. 

“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so post secondary education wasn’t really on my radar,” he remembers. “So the military seemed a good option to me to go and learn some good skills, some independence and to have the opportunity of giving back.”

And accompanying his mom to hospital appointments when he was younger helped him decide on becoming a medic. 

“They were saying words I didn’t understand but I knew related to my mom’s health,” he remembers. “So I would go to the library. I thought how cool it would be to have medical knowledge and go to places where I didn’t speak the language, and I was able to explain things in a way to another child, [that would] put them at ease.”

In 2001, 120 lb, 19-year-old Matthew moved to Suffield, Alberta, for basic training camp and started doing things he never thought possible.

“I could complete the obstacle course. Despite my [thick] glasses I scored marksmen,” he says. “And for the first time in my life people were relying on me to do my thing, to pull your own weight and pull together.” 

Matthew worked as a field paramedic based out of Edmonton for a few years, and then in 2006, his unit began preparing for a tour in Afghanistan.

“Everything became painfully real when Boomer (Andrew Eykelenboom) was killed on August 11, 2006,” Matthew recalls. “He was the first Canadian medic to be killed in combat since Korea. Myself and a few buddies were selected as pallbearers to bring him home. It was an honour but it was also humbling. He was 23. I was 23. He was a medic, and we were all medics.”

Andrew Eykelenboom was the first Canadian medic to be killed in combat since Korea. Matthew was a pallbearer sent to bring him home from Afghanistan in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Heneghan.)

Those small moments

Matthew would go on to lose more brothers to the war in Afghanistan. 

“In May 2008, Michael Starker, a guy I got to know well during pre-deployment training was killed,” Matthew says. “I left the army two months later and the day after I left private Wilmot, a good friend of mine, was killed on July 6, 2008.” 

158 Canadians were killed in action in Afghanistan. 196 by way of suicide upon returning home. And given the recent situation in that country today, it’s understandable why people who lost friends and loved ones to that war might feel unsettled. 

“It’s been very hard. I sit here staring at chairs my friends will never sit on,” Matthew says. “I miss them. I want my buddies to be back, and right now with the country of Afghanistan being once again ripped apart by violence part of me is sad, at a loss. What was it all for?”

Focusing on the small things has helped Matthew cope with everything that’s happened around him this summer. He thinks about the people in Afghanistan and how the army gave some of them a better quality of life, even if sometimes it was just for a quick second.

“Those small moments should never be invalidated by another tragedy that’s happening,” Matthew says.

And this August, when he checked into a hotel in Salmon Arm late at night after being evacuated, Matthew used a similar line of thinking. 

“We walked in and there was this army of people wearing blue vests that said Volunteer,” says Matthew. “They’d come up to you, put their hand on your shoulder. It was their compassion and their dedication to each and every individual that really levelled me. [Their] smiles, taps on the back, and wishes good night made all the difference in the world.” 

Disaster or defense

Showing up to respond to a natural disaster is something the Canadian Armed Forces also has a long history of doing. Whether sandbagging flood banks, evacuating Canadians ambushed by blizzards, or fighting fires in BC’s interior, they have been there, and their services and soldiers are in increasingly high demand. 

Canada is calling on members of the Canadian Armed Forces to help with local emergencies more often than in past decades. (Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service.)

Over the past five years, the military has been sent on 22 weather-related missions, compared to a total of only 32 from 1996 to 2016. The rising costs for Operational Lentus — how the Department of National Defense refers to any natural disaster mission — and the increasing demand for skilled soldiers to help in such events is concerning for some in the ranks. 

“[It’s] very dangerous,” said Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre in an interview with Global News last year. “If we become focused on solely humanitarian-assistance, disaster response, when the country really needs us, when the stakes are very high and we have to fight and we’re not ready, that’s going to cause casualties and it’s going to cost loss of national interest.”

Others warn of the more personal costs that soldiers may face being deployed too often.

“If you think of the average year in the life of a soldier, they might be away six months doing an operation outside of Canada, come home, during that reconstitution period — the period of time that they’re with their family, and sort of getting back into swing of things back home — they could be called out again in their thousands to be dealing with the effects of climate change,” says Canadian General Jonathon Vance. 

Climate scientists agree that over the next several decades both the amount and intensity of natural disasters will increase globally and that additional resources will be needed. 

At the same time, they can see a future with less greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and one with fewer fires and floods. A world where individuals took steps to reduce their own carbon footprint, communities supported renewable energy campaigns, and industries around the world took waste and pollution seriously.

“If you look at the people who are addressing the problem and don’t feel hopeful, then you don’t have a pulse,” says US author and journalist Paul Hawken. 

Fighting the White Rock Lake Fire. Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service.

Canadian made for it

Matthew agrees that dealing with natural disasters — like the way the military showed up to fight BC wildfires this year — could be the new normal for Canadians. 

“I think these things are only going to continue,” Matthew says. “Whether that’s flooding or crazy dry stretches or the forest fires we’ve had this year.” 

Given the extremes us Canadians have inhabited for a long time, however, Matthew believes we are up to the task.

“Canadians know what it means to survive amidst a challenging climate and own a healthy respect for the world around us,” Matthew says. “We have already seen record breaking highs, volatile flood seasons and droughts in a growing number of areas. It will no doubt be a challenge, but I believe Canadians will be among the tip of the spear of those that acclimate to an evolving world.”

Matthew Heneghan shares his experiences of living with PTSD on his blog, podcast, and in a memoir he published in 2019 called A Medic’s Mind. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Heneghan.)

Although Matthew Heneghan has never served on an Operation Lentus mission as a medic, he is incredibly grateful to those who have and do. 

“To those that serve, thank you,” Matthew says. “The work these men and women do is often unthinkable to the everyday citizen. And yet they do it time and time again. I don’t believe I will ever truly be able to find the words to express my gratitude towards those that run in while everyone else is told to run away.”