A First Nation community in northern Alberta is mourning the loss of firefighter Jerry Gadwa, who died last week while helping to fight forest fires in Ontario.
“There’s obviously a lot of shock because a lot of people got a long good with him,” said Kehewin Cree Nation Coun. William John, Gadwa’s nephew by marriage.
“In our community, we have a lot of people that enjoy… humour, a lot of sharing laughs,” John said. “Jerry was just as much a part of that as anybody else.”
John, whose wife is Gadwa’s niece, learned of Gadwa’s death Thursday night.
For the past 20 years, Gadwa has spent his summers fighting wildfires across the province and country, John said.
“It’s just something, once you have a knack for it, you keep going with it,” John said.
Gadwa, who was working as a forestry firefighter with a company that recruits firefighters from local First Nations, died while supporting fire suppression efforts in Red Lake, Ont., near the border with Manitoba.
Hard-working, good father
Gadwa, in his late 40s, lived on the Kehewin Cree Nation reserve, approximately 225 kilometres northeast of Edmonton near Bonnyville, with his 10-year-old son, John said.
“His primary motivation was to make sure his boy had everything he needed,” said John, whose wife is Gadwa’s niece.
“She often spoke of Jerry telling her he wanted to make sure he was taken care of.”
Gadwa’s son had been staying with Gadwa’s sister in Cold Lake while his father was firefighting, John said.
John said Gadwa was known in the community for his work ethic.
“He didn’t like to sit around,” John said. “He was very driven.”
High school memories
John, who is also in his 40s, has memories of Gadwa going back to their high school days.
Even back then, Gadwa was very disciplined, John said.
“Jerry would put on his muscle T-shirt and I remember some of the boys from Bonnyville coming up to me and asking, ‘Who is this guy?’
“They were impressed by his physique.”
Gadwa began training as a firefighter when he was still very young, John said, noting Gadwa’s career path motivated him to keep fit.
John said he’s heard his uncle by marriage may have been suffering from a health issue.
“If he was a little bit ill, perhaps he shouldn’t have been out there,” John said.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour and police are investigating the cause of Gadwa’s death, with the help of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Firefighting community grieving
On Saturday, Brian McEvoy, regional fire chief with Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority, said the news of Gadwa’s death is reverberating through the local firefighting community.
“Emergency services are very close-knit groups of people,” he said. “When one has a loss, we all share it. This one we share a little bit more because it’s closer to home.”
Bonnyville and Kehewin volunteer fire departments often worked together on fires in the area, McEvoy said.
Premier Rachel Notley Friday offered condolences.
“We are one country and we look out for one another. Mr. Gadwa and his fellow firefighters were in Ontario fighting to defend the well-being of their fellow Canadians,” Notley said in a statement.
“The sacrifice they and their families make is extraordinary and is felt heavily in hearts throughout Alberta and across Canada.”
There are currently more than 200 Alberta firefighter deployed in other provinces, with the majority in Ontario.