Posted at 1:15am. Updated at 5:00 p.m.
(Normétal) The call from the Society for the Protection of Forests from Fire (SOPFEU) could not have come at a worse time.
We are on June 6th in Normétal, a village of about 800 proud high schoolers located south of James Bay, about 735 km north of Montreal.
At the head of a brigade of 23 volunteer firefighters, Doris Nolet has just hung up with “his boys” who have been “watering” row 8 of Saint-Lambert – the neighboring village – since the morning.
It’s been a few days since a forest fire caused by lightning – the “281” – raged outside the gates of Normetal. Residents have already been evacuated. Only a handful of key workers remain, including the Pioneers.
Bad news: Your tanker got stuck on the gravel road.
The driver is unable to escape the mess as the fire is dangerously advancing in his direction.
The head of the Normétal fire brigade has barely had time to take in the information when her phone rings again. It was SOPFEU who ordered him to “evacuate immediately” the volunteer firefighters from Row 8.
The force of the wind caused “jumps” of 500 m at the seat of the fire. Your safety will soon be at risk.
“I was not doing well,” said the 66-year-old.
The tanker driver is none other than her husband Alain St-Georges. The passion for firefighting is a family affair at Normétal. Her son is also deputy fire chief.
Since the state of emergency began on June 3rd, the fire chief has managed the operations of the fire station while her men are on site to support the SOPFEU firefighters, the main contractors on the operation.
“I’ll send you a tracked vehicle to get you out of there,” she told her husband. In the worst case, you let the tanker down. »
Tanker planes fly overhead.
In extreme cases, the “boys” will manage to evacuate another row… with the tanker. “It was time for them to arrive,” recalls the fire chief.
More than a month later, the couple manages to laugh about it. “It’s just a rumor,” says the friendly, bearded man. The guy I was with didn’t take a picture. He had no time! »
The 1.50 meter tall fire chief, she says, is getting serious again. “We’re lucky to still have a village,” says the native of Normétal and takes us on a tour of the site on a warm evening in mid-July.
During the two weeks of June, when the fire brigade worked tirelessly, the fire was at times 500 m away from the community, and in several places at the same time. About forty New Brunswick firefighters came to assist the firefighters who were already on the scene.
Around Normétal, ditches 40 m wide were urgently dug to serve as a firebreak.
In the face of climate change, we knew we had to do something to protect the villages – we only spoke about that at a fire chiefs meeting last May. But I never thought we would have to do it so quickly.
Doris Nolet, head of the Normétal fire brigade
More than 2,500 people lived here in the 1960s. The population has declined since the closure of the Normal Mining Limited copper mine in 1975 – when 1,000 people moved in a matter of months, according to the municipality’s website.
Today, every home, every family is important to Normal’s survival. Firefighters know this all too well.
As a child, Doris Nolet lived very close to the barracks. His neighbor was a volunteer firefighter. As a teenager, she babysat her offspring when duty came. “When he came back, I wanted him to tell me everything,” she recalls. He said to me: Your eyes light up when I tell you that. »
At the age of 29, mother of three children, she applied. In the fire station, a secret ballot is held among the firefighters on duty. She loses by two votes. It’s 1986.
“The guys weren’t ready. “That was too fast for the mentality of the time,” she explains today without bitterness.
There might have been women firefighters in the city, but that wasn’t yet accepted in the small squares.
Her refusal was justified at the time by the fact that she was “not sufficiently available”. However, she had assured them that if she had to leave the house to fight a fire, her eldest could keep the younger ones.
In 2004, she gained access to the archives to create a commemorative document to mark the 50th anniversary of the barracks. There she learns that the result was close. “I even saw who voted against,” she said, before bursting into laughter.
Doris was then a tutor at the high school in Lasarre, a town about thirty kilometers south of Normétal. “I had ticked my dream,” she admits. Her husband has since become a volunteer firefighter. He initially refused, she specifies, because “not”. [lui] cause pain”.
That same year, the director of the fire department at the time finally gave him a chance. She has to pass an exam. His biggest annoyance: the connection of large pipes to the tanker and the hydrants. She has nightmares about it. “Two-and-a-half inch pipes are heavy,” she says. I spent my days practicing. »
Guess the rest: she accepts the challenge with flying colors and joins the brigade.
In 2018, Doris Nolet was promoted to chief, becoming the first woman to head a fire department in Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
As soon as she was named, she faced the “biggest fire” of her career. On a windy evening, young people got the bad idea of starting a fire in a laundry tub at the village entrance – and above all, leaving it unattended for a few moments.
Five buildings, including a garage and an apartment building, were destroyed by the flames and fourteen others were damaged. Electrical wires fall down. There is a lack of water in the village. “We gave out all the fire extinguishers we had,” she says. It really was hell. Fortunatly nobody was hurt.
A human leader
The fire chief is respected. “She’s a leader. She started at the bottom of the career ladder and then worked hard to get there,” says Antoine Baillargeon, the former chef who gave her a chance 19 years ago.
In principle, Doris is handing over the torch this year. However, she would have liked to recruit a woman before leaving. “There is room for women. We don’t see fires in the same way. »
“We constantly send you to accompany the evacuees,” emphasized his male colleagues. you are good at it The rest of us have a hard time doing that. »
It’s not the salary that attracts candidates. On call, she earns $125 a month. “You can write it down,” the laughing woman said, and laughed again.
“I don’t do it for money. I do it to help the population,” adds Doris Nolet more seriously. She was also a first responder and was urgently called to a man who “fell in his yard” a few years ago.
“We took the defibrillator with us. We shocked him the first time, it didn’t work. It still didn’t work the second time. A third time we had a pulse – very weak – but we had one. »
The ambulance coming from Lasarre takes at least 25 minutes to get to Normétal. The fire chief accompanied the unconscious man to the emergency vehicle. The latter was stabilized and then transferred to a Montreal hospital.
“Today we go for a walk together in the evening. That’s my salary! »
Her two granddaughters, aged 10 and 16, stopped by for an interview on the day of our visit to spy on their grandmother. “I hope they take over,” says the sixty-year-old – with the direct way that characterizes her.
“If I stay here, maybe,” replies the eldest, Anabel, clearly embarrassed by the sudden attention she was receiving. The teen then adds that it doesn’t matter, she’s “very proud” of her grandmother. We don’t feel a hint of hesitation here. The youngest doesn’t say a word, but her eyes light up with admiration.
Doris Nolet in 5 appointments
1957: born in Normal
1986: Rejected by the fire department
2004: integrated into the brigade
2018: appointed chief