Just another day on the job

Firefighting family spans 4 generations

A High Prairie family boasts four generations of service on the High Prairie Volunteer Fire Department. In the bottom row, left-right, are Edwina Ayles, Claude Hebert and Chantelle Ayles. At the top is Emma Ayles.

Chris Clegg
South Peace News

It is rare when three generations serve on the same volunteer fire department at the same time.

But it almost never occurs when the volunteers are women.

However, for the better part of almost two years, members of the Ayles family have served High Prairie and area in its noblest of service.

Edwina Ayles, 51, her daughter Chantelle, 35, and her daughter Emma, 16, thoroughly enjoy life at the fire hall and the special camaraderie of its members.

And if you include Claude Hebert, father-in-law of Edwina, the generation of service in the family reaches four.

“I was worried when I came in but we’re just like a family,” says Edwina, who joined in early 2018. “It’s very much a part of that. A lifelong family.”

The fact the three are women in what used to be a man’s world is the furthest thing fellow firefighters are concerned about.

“We’re not seen that way,” says Chantelle. “We’re seen as firefighters.

“We’re firefighters. It doesn’t matter if you’re a mother or daughter,” she adds.

“We’re part of a working team,” adds Edwina.

Edwina knew Claude served on the department and knew they needed members when she joined.

Chantelle joined the department in July 2016 and has served as a firefighter since. She is the longest serving of the three.

“I want to give back to the community,” she says.

However, Chantelle’s story not only involves service to the community but also in personal growth.

“I kept to myself, I was in introvert,” she says. “It was good to help me get out of my shell.”

Being around a family of firefighters will do that.

Edwina was asked by a friend to consider joining.

“I had the application for a year before I filled it out,” she says.

“I was encouraged by Gerry [her husband] to try it and see if it’s for me. I don’t regret the decision at all. The people have been great.”

Emma joined in February 2019. Being surrounded by firefighters at the family dinner table, the idea of joining always intrigued her. She also spoke to junior firefighter Austin Stout before taking the plunge.

“I was told it’d be cool to join,” she remembers. “Austin told me how much fun it is. Now that I joined I’m glad I did.”

She even takes the good–natured teasing from members in stride.

“I get picked on a bit. I’m told ‘Do it right or mom will get on you,’” she says.

But that is certainly not the case; besides, mom is part of the team, not her supervisor.

Chantelle said the decision to join was always Emma’s.

“I won’t make you do it,” she recalls telling her.

“But you will learn a lot of life skills and you can do a lot of things you learn here.”

Emma still joined despite being concerned over her lack of size. She first remembers finding it difficult to roll a hose into a doughnut [about 35 pounds] and lifting it.

And “the compressed oxygen tanks and running up the stairs”.

She has noticed a marked improvement in her physical condition since joining.

Chantelle says the most difficult part of the job is remembering every detail, especially since the close-knit team is relying on every member to do its job.

“You have to remember to turn that on and turn that off,” she says of the equipment on the fire truck.

“There is lots of responsibility.”

For Edwina, joining the department helped her overcome her fear of heights.

“I am claustrophobic. When I put on my breathing apparatus” she found it difficult.

“Now I can put it on. I can go in inside a burning building.”

Her fears did not last long.

“I can do all that. I have a team. There is always someone to help me. That’s what this department does – it helped me overcome one of the biggest fears I had.”

Claude served on the department from 1970-95. He joined because “they needed firefighters” and from encouragement by his employer.

“It was an excellent organization to be involved in,” says Claude, who served as captain and training officer. He also conducted fire investigations.

“We had a great group. We were a small group but we knew each other and we went through hell together.”

He served under another longtime fire chief, Bill Eckel.

“Bill encouraged training all the time,” says Claude.

Memorable fires included several elevator fires, the Park Hotel and Bishop Ford.

He is very proud of the three women for deciding to serve. The family does not talk about firefighting much at family gatherings, at least not as much as one might think.

“I like to talk with Claude about what he used to so,” says Edwina.

There is one small regret about firefighting that Chantelle deals with.

“I wish I could be more committed,” she says. “I have my kids and they will always be first.

“I love being here and I come as much as I can.”

All three talk in the highest regard of their leader: fire chief Ken Melnyk, and the special relationship they enjoy.

“He’s a big supporter of his team and family,” says Edwina. “He’s there for us all the time.”

“Ken’s a mentor – big time,” adds Chantelle. “Personally, you can come to him with something personal.”

“He’s helped my with a lot, he’s a fun guy,” adds Emma. “It’s sad that he’s leaving.”

All three urge anyone considering joining the department to do so.

“Some give it a try,” says Chantelle.

“There is a full team to help you succeed,” adds Edwina.

“When you go out on practice, everyone is there to help you,” says Emma.

As a family, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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