‘People are going to suffer:’ Sundre firefighters quit after longtime chief turfed

Volunteer firefighters in Sundre are quitting in support of their former chief, who was fired by town officials.

Marty Butts, who’s led the 32-member department for 11 years, was dismissed last weekend following what he calls ongoing disagreements with town hall over how the operation was run and the performance leave he imposed on one of its members.

He said that’s led most of the other volunteer members to hang up their hoses and axes in support of him, which leaves the town in danger.

“I’m so scared if something happens that we’ll pay the ultimate price,” said Butts, adding help from fire departments like Olds would mean a 45-minute response time. “People are going to suffer.”

Butts said sparks have been flying in the town over his firing and being locked out of the fire station earlier this week after he placed a female volunteer member of the department on a temporary leave of absence for disruptive behaviour.

He said he’s been unfairly cast by town chief administrative officer Linda Nelson as a bully for the move but insists he had no choice but to “lay down the law,” adding his blunt style might also have contributed to his firing.

“I call it the way I see it and sometimes it gets me into trouble,” he said, adding he couldn’t discuss details of the dispute for legal reasons.

The tensions between him and town officials of the town of 2,800 people about 120 km northwest of Calgary have been building for years, said Butts, and could have been resolved long ago but have now left Sundre’s fire department in tatters.

“It took decades to build up a very respected fire department and it took only a day for (Nelson) to destroy it,” said Butts, who’s been a volunteer firefighter there for more than three decades.

“When you lose these kinds of people, you don’t rebuild it overnight.”

Town officials have said they’re seeking a new fire chief and have agreements with neighbouring departments if help is needed.

Volunteer fire Capt. Frank Crouch, who served with Butts for the past 11 years, said he’s “disgusted” with the firing and added the former chief has been an exemplary leader.

“He’s the best ever — we’d follow him into burning buildings and he’s never, ever put anyone in jeopardy,” said Crouch.

More than half the department’s volunteers have quit, including himself, he said.

“I’m done, I’ve turned in my pager,” said Crouch, adding most of the town backs Butts.

“People are furious, they want Nelson out.”

Butts said only two members have agreed to remain and would be in danger if they faced serious situations alone.

Both Crouch and Butts said town officials haven’t been forthcoming about the reasons for the firing.

The former chief was to meet with town officials outside the fire hall on Wednesday evening to discuss the situation.

It’s also expected to attract Butts’ supporters.

Neither Sundre Mayor Terry Leslie or Nelson returned calls for comment Wednesday, though the mayor has said Butts’ dismissal was done through proper channels and that he couldn’t divulge further information due to privacy concerns.

Some of the town’s residents say they’re stunned and angered over Butts’ dismissal and fear for their safety if most of their firefighters quit.

“Residents are in shock over how Marty could be let go out of the blue, and a few who know the actual details are disgusted by how something that should have been handled professionally and discreetly could get so out of hand,” said Kim Harbicht-Sczesny.

On Monday, a number of townspeople gathered to confront Leslie over the firing and to show their support for Butts.

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