Five years ago, veteran Etobicoke firefighter Randy “Duke” Burch expressed his wish to live long enough to walk his two daughters down the aisle.
Stricken with a brain tumour at the time – attributed to his exposure to the multitude of toxic chemicals he encountered over 16 years as a frontline firefighter – Burch nonetheless took time out to participate in Mask Up, a safety video touting the merits of wearing a mask on the job to prevent illnesses such as his own.
In the 15-minute Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) video, which is still today circulated amongst firefighters across Ontario, Burch talked frankly about his 2003 diagnosis with work-related brain cancer – and the toll his illness took on him and his family.
“It’s been hard at times. My motivation has been affected drastically. My emotions have been played with. My memory is a big thing – there are a lot of times when I do forget things that I’ve said or done, and my kids, they can shrug it off...but it’s been hard on them,” he said of daughters Madeline and Julia, now both in their 20s, in the 2007 video.
“They both understand that someday I may not be around – that this may be cutting my life shorter. But I’d like to be around for their weddings, at least. And as far as I know, I will be.”
Unfortunately, Burch didn’t live long enough to see that wish through.
He passed away on Nov. 12 at age 54 after a brave, 10-year battle with brain cancer. He is survived by his daughters and his wife of 29 years, Edith.
At his full-honours funeral in Newmarket last Friday, close to 250 firefighters and 200 family and friends came out to honour Burch’s ultimate sacrifice, said longtime colleague, friend, and eulogizer Steve Yurkiw.
A rookie at the time, Yurkiw first met Burch at what was then Etobicoke Fire Station #7 on Martin Grove Road back in April 1989.
“Randy was the rookie at the time, so when I came in as the new rookie...he was glad to see me come, because it meant he was no longer the one taking the brunt of everything,” Yurkiw said with a laugh.
“When I first came into the hall, the captain turned to me and said ‘Stevie, you stick with Randy and he’ll teach you what you’re doing.’ In my first three or four days, I said ‘holy cow! This guy looks way too young to know so much.’ But that was just Randy. He took everything to the top.”
Described by Yurkiw as a perfectionist, Burch’s high standards extended beyond the fire hall and into his personal life as well – be that reflected in his much-admired family life with the wife and two daughters who meant “everything” to him, in his successful Duke’s Decks side venture as a contractor, or in his hunting and fishing pursuits.
“It was a real pleasure to know him,” Yurkiw said. “We definitely lost a good one.”
Burch was recognized by the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association (TPFFA) for being one in a long line of fire fighters whose occupational cancer deaths may not have occurred suddenly or in dramatic fashion, but were nonetheless lauded as sacrifices made on behalf of the public. He was awarded with the Martin E. Pierce Commemorative Line-of-Duty Death Medal at his funeral.
Paul Atkinson, a WSIB representative for the TPFFA, said Burch’s death was one of the five to seven work-related cancer deaths amongst Ontario firefighters the province suffers each year.
Still, Burch was always known as being one of the more safety conscious firefighters amongst his colleagues – and as evidenced by his work with the Mask Up video, was keen to spread the safety message to his fire hall brothers and sisters, even while battling the fight of his life.
“For those rookies that are out there...you do (need to wear your mask) even when the fire is out, because that’s the worst time, when all the carcinogens are in the air,” Burch cautioned his fellow firefighters at the end of Mask Up. “You may not be able to see it, but they’re still there and you’re breathing it in if you take your mask off. Keep wearing it...and you’ll be a safer person for it. And you may last a few years later on the job.”
That’s a message Yurkiw hopes his fellow firefighters will take to heart in memory of his fallen friend.
“I said (in my eulogy), I want you to keep Duke in your memory. Every time you get to that fire call and you don’t have your mask on, think of Duke,” he said. “I, for one, don’t want to be gone at 54 – and that’s what Randy was, 54.”