`A hard loss’: Waterford mourns `heartbreaking’ death of firefighter battling B.C. wildfire
August 3, 2023 By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator
Derek Rowntree was shocked and saddened to learn that one of his former students at Waterford District High School had been killed while fighting wildfires in British Columbia last week.
But Rowntree said it was no surprise Zachery Freeman Muise had gone west to help others in need.
“It definitely fits with what I remember — going out there to do a great thing, working hard and trying to help people,” said Rowntree, who coached “Zak” on the Waterford Wolves basketball team for three years.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” Rowntree said. “Always thinking of other people. Always being a nice guy. Always doing the right thing.”
Muise, 25, died on July 28 while being airlifted by helicopter to the Fort St. John airport after he was injured in a remote part of in northeastern British Columbia.
The Waterford native was helping to contain the Donnie Creek wildfire, which has been burning since May 12 and is the largest recorded wildfire in the province’s history, engulfing nearly 6,000 square kilometres.
Muise was working for a private firefighting contractor and deployed through B.C. Wildfire Service. He had been on the ground battling the giant wildfire for two weeks when his utility terrain vehicle rolled over what police described as a steep drop on a gravel road.
“Zak was loved by many. We are so grateful for the time we had with him,” Muise’s family wrote in an online tribute.
“We are devastated by the sudden and tragic loss of our son, brother and friend. Zak loved life and loved what he was doing. He will be missed by all who knew him.”
Muise was one of six siblings and is remembered as a “thoughtful baby brother” and “highest piggybacking uncle” to his four nieces.
He is the fourth Canadian wildland firefighter to die on the job during this summer’s wildfire season and the second killed in British Columbia in July.
“We are grateful for all first responders,” Muise’s family wrote. “Our hearts go out to all the families of fallen firefighters, first responders and those left who are still fighting.”
Muise, who lived in Kelowna, was in his third summer as a wildland firefighter and his first working with Big Cat Wildfire. In a social media post, the company said employees were grieving “with a heavy heart” the loss of “a vital member of one of our crews.”
Rowntree said Muise’s death will reverberate through the “tight-knit” Waterford District High School community.
“It’s a hard loss,” Rowntree said. “Waterford’s a small school. You really get to know the kids. So it’s definitely going to be felt.”
Muise “fell in love with the game of basketball” in high school and worked hard at learning how to dunk, said Rowntree, who now teaches in Caledonia.
“He was a pretty tall kid and he could really jump. And by the end of the season, he was able to dunk,” Rowntree said.
Muise was interested in woodworking as a high school student — he later trained as a carpenter in college and worked as a cabinetmaker in Tillsonburg — and when he learned Rowntree was looking for a small shelf for his basement, Muise volunteered to make one for his coach in shop class.
“He was always a super nice kid. He was hard-working. A supportive teammate. He was one of those guys that everybody liked,” Rowntree said.
“It’s sad to hear about kids that are doing well in life and trying to get themselves established, and then for it to be cut short like that is just heartbreaking for everybody that knew him, and for the Waterford community for sure.”
Politicians in British Columbia and Ontario paid tribute to Muise, with Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Bobbi Ann Brady and MP Leslyn Lewis extending their sympathies to the family and the community.
Norfolk County Mayor Amy Martin said the county “is saddened by the loss of this brave firefighter.”
“Mr. Muise was helping to keep Canadians safe by battling western wildfires,” Martin said in a statement. “We owe this courageous man our deepest gratitude.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and B.C. Premier David Eby also offered their condolences.
Muise’s death is under investigation by multiple agencies, including the RCMP, the B.C. Wildfire Service, WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Coroners Service.
The family said a funeral will be held later this month in Simcoe, while a public memorial will take place in British Columbia “to honour Zak’s service.”
An online fundraiser in Muise’s memory is collecting donations for the Canadian Critical Incident Stress Foundation, a group that supports first responders and their families, including helping loved ones cope with loss.