New Brunswick

After 44 years, Saint John fire chief hangs up his badge

The Irving Oil Refinery explosion, a massive fire at American Iron and Metal, the burning of the old Lyric Theatre on Charlotte Street — Saint John Chief Kevin Clifford has seen it all over his 44-year career in firefighting.

Kevin Clifford has had a storied career and been involved in fires both major and minor

A grinning man sitting in a studio, wearing a fire chief hat
Fire Chief Kevin Clifford says he'll miss the job, especially being part of the team, even if it was just providing some calm during intense events. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The Irving Oil Refinery explosion, a massive fire at American Iron and Metal, the burning of the landmark Lyric Theatre on Charlotte Street — Saint John Chief Kevin Clifford has seen it all over his 44-year career in firefighting.

Now, he's retiring after devoting most of his working life to the profession, a calling that was passed from his grandfather to his father and then to him.

But it wasn't until the summer he worked as a playground attendant, right next to the fire station, that he knew it was right for his future.

"I watched the firefighters being dispatched to calls and coming back … and it was very much a team," he recalled. "They got off the truck together, and they backed each other up."

Nighttime image of a large fire, billowing smoke
Piles of metal at AIM's west side scrapyard caught fire at around 1 a.m. on Sept. 14. Over the next 40 hours, Saint John firefighters used about two million litres of water to battle the blaze. (Submitted by Ed Moyer)

That experience, coupled with an open opportunity to apply, was just the beginning.

"The best call I've ever gotten career-wise was the first call. 'Congratulations, you've been accepted, report to Millidgeville fire station training academy,'" he told Information Morning Saint John.

More than four decades later, Clifford is hanging up his gear and retiring.

Looking back on his years in the fire service, there are moments that have stayed with him.

A yellow dump truck sits in front of a pile of rubble on a city street. An orange excavator works on top of a rubble pile/
A 2012 fire destroyed the old Lyric Theatre, a historic landmark in the city's uptown. (Bobbie-Jean MacKinnon/CBC)

At the start of his career, Clifford said, he thought firefighters were bulletproof.

"You always thought as long as you were carrying an axe that you were never in trouble because you could chop your way through any interior problems that you got into."

But one call provided a "sobering reality" for him, when he went down into the hull of a ship to help a colleague in trouble.

"I still had the axe in my hand and I'm going, 'Oh, this is stupid,'" realizing the axe was not the answer this time.

Clifford remembers a fire uptown at the Korner Grocery, a store attached to what had been the Lyric Theatre, firefighters tried to go back in to save some of the contents. A captain by the name of Adams was inside the building, and Clifford was sticking his head inside the doorway, something he shouldn't have done as a commanding officer.

"And Capt. Adams says, 'Mr. Chief, get out of that doorway,' and I said 'Cap, if this falls down on you, it better fall down on me too.'"

A thick billow of dark grey smoke shoots up over the city.
Smoke plumes seen over the city after an explosion and fire at the Irving Oil Refinery in 2018. (Submitted by Joseph Comeau)

Clifford said he doesn't like to reflect on the fires where lives were lost, but he also recognizes the powerful impact those events have, on the firefighters as well as loved ones. He said there have been many firefighters who developed post-traumatic stress disorder from not being able to rescue people.

Clifford also noticed a shift within himself after the birth of his son. He remembers the moment things changed for him — at a building fire on the corner of Prince Edward and Richmond streets. 

"It was shortly after my son Peter was born that all of a sudden I said, 'Oh my gosh, if something happens to me, I have a newborn that needs me.'"

A man dressed in firefighting gear
Clifford says it's been 'a bit of a journey' getting to this point and saying goodbye. (CBC)

Still, Clifford said he'll miss the job as he steps away, and he'll miss being part of the team, even if it was just providing a bit of calm during intense events, things like explosion at the Irving Oil Refinery in 2018 and the massive fire at the American Iron and Metal scrapyard just a few months ago.

And he's pleased that Deputy Chief Rob Nichol is taking over the role because he has the skills to continue to keep the team safe and provide the best service to the community, he said.

Clifford said he's ready to walk away, and his job now is to his wife, their three adult children and three grandchildren, one of whom was just born about a week ago.

"It's been a bit of a journey getting to this point in my head and saying goodbye to fire," said Clifford.

"But I've looked at what's in my life right now and, you know, whether we have a day or 25 years left, [I want] to continue to live life to its fullest."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Rudderham is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick. She grew up in Cape Breton, N.S., and moved to Fredericton in 2018. You can send story tips to hannah.rudderham@cbc.ca.

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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