Yukon North Of Ordinary

News archive for January 17, 2014

Flame-fighter poised to cap four-decade career

It was 45 years ago that an 18-year-old Whitehorse fire chief Clive Sparks took a job with the Yukon government that would set his career path in motion and take him through to retirement.

By Stephanie Waddell on January 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm


Photo by Vince Fedoroff

ROLLING MEMORIES – The soon-to-retire Clive Sparks is seen with the pumper he worked on in the late 1960s (top). DECADES OF CHANGE – Whitehorse fire chief Clive Sparks, seen in his Public Safety Building office earlier this week, has witnesssed many major operational changes during his 40-plus years with the City of Whitehorse. Star file photo. THE DESTRUCTION OF HISTORY – In 1974, Clive Sparks worked on one of the most painful and devastating fires in the citysʼ history, when flames claimed the SS Whitehorse and Casca sternwheelers on the waterfront.

It was 45 years ago that an 18-year-old Whitehorse fire chief Clive Sparks took a job with the Yukon government that would set his career path in motion and take him through to retirement.

In three months, the 62-year-old Sparks will retire as the city’s fourth fire chief and allow a new fire chief to lead the fire department in the years to come.

As he recalled in an interview Wednesday, Sparks was hired in 1969 on water delivery for the territory and part of those duties meant bringing water up to the residents of Porter Creek which did not have the water system it does now.

Just as the community didn’t have the water system it now does, firefighters didn’t have the level of equipment they do now.

So, when there was a fire, it was the water truck Sparks drove for work which served as the pumper to put out fires.

Consequently, it was suggested to the teenager he sign on as a volunteer firefighter with the then-Porter Creek Volunteer Fire Department.

He figured he “might as well.” The department, made up entirely of volunteers, found him a jacket and boots that fit from the fire hall on Centennial Street where the Porter Creek Indoor Garden Centre currently sits.

With a one-size-fits-all design, a helmet was no problem to find.

With that, Sparks was declared a volunteer firefighter.

For two years, Sparks volunteered with the Porter Creek department.

In 1971, after he was married and living downtown, his job transferred over to the city. Sparks also decided to move his volunteer efforts from the Porter Creek department to the city’s fire department.

“It’s just very satisfying work,” he said

It wasn’t long after that when the Porter Creek fire department amalgamated with the city’s.

Sparks enjoyed his volunteer work and continued with it until 1979. A position as a paid firefighter opened up in the department, so in November of that year, he started as a full-time firefighter with the city.

Many of his career highlights came in 10-year stints or close to that, he recalled.

It would be seven years after being hired with the department, in 1986, when he was promoted to captain.

In 1990, he became deputy chief. A decade later, he became the city’s fourth fire chief since Whitehorse was incorporated in 1950.

In recent months, as well as on other occasions, he’s also filled in as the acting director of infrastructure and operations when needed, which the fire department falls under.

He returned to his role as fire chief this week to wrap things up in his office over the next three months. And he admits he wanted to end his career with the fire department.

Sparks has often been asked whether he would ever go back to firefighting. Though he enjoyed that side of the department’s duties, working in management provides a whole different perspective which he also enjoys.

“You really get to shape and provide where you want the department to go,” he said.

The new Public Safety Building at the top of Two Mile Hill had been talked about for years before he became chief.

However, he was heavily involved in sharing what the department needed from its new building, which was then incorporated into the design.

In another month or two, the city’s newest pumper truck will arrive. Sparks had a major role in determining what truck the city would order.

Looking back, he said it feels good to have a hand in the direction the fire department has taken over the years.

Asked about the fires which stand out for him, Sparks noted that there are obviously the bigger blazes he’s worked on. He pointed to photos on his office wall – the burning of two sternwheelers on the waterfront in 1974, a major hangar fire at the airport and many others over the years.

There are also the smaller fires many Yukoners don’t remember or haven’t heard about.

Like many firefighters, he remembers being summoned to his first house fire in an area of Porter Creek around Birch Street. There are no homes in that area anymore.

Busy bush fire seasons and those days that start off at -40 C and only seem to get colder as you’re fighting a blaze also stand out. The first SAAN clothing store, for example, burned down in that temperature in January 1991 at the corner of Second Avenue and Ogilvie Street.

And then, every once in a while, Sparks will drive by a house or building and remember a fire or incident he was called to there.

There are also the vehicle collisions and river rescues the department has responded to over the years.

As Sparks recalls, when he started, the fire department’s main role was fighting fires.

The move to respond to vehicle collisions was a big change for personnel, Sparks said, remembering some oldtimers arguing that that wasn’t what the fire department was there to do.

But it’s a change that’s been shown to be for the better, he said.

These days, the department seems to be the help source many people call for any kind of emergency. So it’s important that even if it’s not something the department can respond to that dispatchers know who the call should contact.

“It was sort of a step-by-step process,” Sparks said of taking on more roles. He noted, for example, that because they were doing confined space rescue training, it was only a short step away to learn to conduct rescues from cliffs.

Ensuring firefighters are trained for firefighting and rescue operations is a bit of a balancing act, Sparks acknowledged.

However, it’s one the department can handle with a full-time training officer on-hand to deal with training.

As he pointed out, “no fire department can just sit still.” There are new technologies, new vehicles and new situations requiring ongoing training.

“It’s certainly ever-changing,” he said. “No two calls are ever the same.”

The number of full-time firefighters, at 21, has seen little change since Sparks was hired on full-time in 1979, when there were 20.

However, Sparks said, the additions of dedicated dispatch staff, a fire prevention officer and a deputy chief make a big difference. They mean that all firefighters can respond to a call rather than leaving one behind to deal with subsequent calls, as was the case in the past.

And then there are the volunteers. While the department can have up to 30 volunteers at any given time, right now there are 15.

Sparks acknowledges it can be difficult to find volunteers because almost all also need to work full-time.

Unlike when Sparks signed on as a volunteer, anyone looking to join the department as an unpaid firefighter must be 19. (As Sparks explains it, this saves any questions which might arise if they need to enter a bar or pub, and gives them some time to gain some driving experience.) They must also go through 150 hours of training before they can respond to their first call.

Sparks said the Whitehorse department has been fortunate to not have experienced any deaths in the line of duty. The worst injuries for firefighters have been a broken arm or ligament.

As he noted, while firefighting is still risky, the department does all it can to ensure what is done is done as safely as possible. No firefighter is asked to go into a burning building and save something which can’t be saved.

Firefighters, he said, will risk a lot to save a lot, but they won’t take risks to save nothing.

That’s a far cry from the days when Sparks remembers being told to wear breathing apparatus only if necessary because it cost money every time it was used.

The long-term risks firefighters undergo have also recently been recognized with presumptive cancer legislation, which essentially gives firefighters access to workers’ compensation should they be diagnosed with certain types of cancer.

“That was a big step forward,” the fire chief said.

While it was the union that pushed for the legislation, adopted in 2011, it had the full support of management, he pointed out. The department will soon be welcoming back a firefighter who was on workers’ compensation under the legislation while they received treatment.

Over the years, Sparks has seen many changes to the city’s fire service, watching the training, equipment and other standards rise.

While he said the city has been a good employer – “probably one of the best” in the territory – and he’s not leaving his job unhappy, the timing is right for retirement.
And after he’s finished his work at the city, he and his wife are planning to sell their home and head south to Vancouver Island.

“That’s the beginning of the next adventure,” he said.

While Whitehorse has been a great place to live and work, unless you enjoy the outdoors, a Yukon winter can be very long when you’re not working, he said, noting neither he nor his wife want to spend their days “watching the snow fall.”

So once his work with the city is done, Sparks said they will start looking at putting their house on the market and heading south.

Mayor Dan Curtis has already acknowledged Sparks’ long-time service to the city. At a recent council meeting, before Sparks left the role of acting director of infrastructure and operation, the mayor noted his appreciation for Sparks’ knowledge and work.

In an interview Thursday, Curtis said Sparks has been generous with his time and passing on his knowledge of the city and its operations whenever needed.

It’s certainly going to be difficult to fill his shoes, Curtis said, wishing Sparks the best as he wraps up his last few months with the city.

“He’s certainly made the city a better place,” the mayor said.

Star Reporter

CommentsAdd a comment

Groucho d'North

Jan 18, 2014 at 11:49 am

Thanks for your many years of service to the community Clive. All the best in your coming retirement.


Jan 19, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Worked with Clive on many urban interface fires. Always enjoyed working with him from the Birddog plane. Level head and common sense approach every time we worked together.

Sylvia Burkhard

Jan 19, 2014 at 8:14 pm

I have always loved Clive’s last name—what else would you be except a firefighter and one of the best at that, thank you for all you did for Whitehorse and the Yukon.

Jim Regimbal

Jan 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Clive my friend - I will miss you. You have been an inspiration to me and I thank you for that. Yukon is a safer place due to your dedication and loyalty. It also helps that you are just one heck of a nice person. All the best to you and Kim - you both deserve it.

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