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Alberta ablaze

Firefighter recalls massive mobilization to fight Fort McMurray fire

Terry Reith / The Canadian Press files</p><p>A wall of fire rages outside of Fort McMurray, Alta., in this May 2016 photo.</p>

Terry Reith / The Canadian Press files

A wall of fire rages outside of Fort McMurray, Alta., in this May 2016 photo.

Forget what you thought you knew about the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

For one week in early May 2016, the world watched as the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray and the surrounding area burned. And burned. And burned some more.


Caused by hot spring weather, limited winter snow melt, fickle winds and quite probably human misstep, the resulting fire caused more than 88,000 people to flee the area. Both suburbia and nearby forests were annihilated. The final tally? Insurance claims of almost $4 billion; 1,500 structures incinerated; 2,500 residences destroyed.

It began as an innocuous wee wildfire the size of four football fields. Dubbed MWF-009, the blaze perfect-stormed, virtually overnight, into the Horse River Fire, a.k.a. "The Beast." Not only did it ravage more than 1.5 million acres of land, the firestorm’s intensity created its own weather system and could be seen from outer space. It was finally declared "under control" two months later.

While disasters of this magnitude typically fuel news reports for weeks, the best story isn’t always the CNN soundbite or YouTube video — it often comes from those battling the calamity at ground zero. As locals abandoned their Fort Mac homes that spring, North American firefighters flooded into the area. This book is their story. The fact that 85 per cent of Fort McMurray was reported undamaged by the fire is on them.

Co-authors Damian Asher and Omar Mouallem call Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray a "narrative construction.’’ Despite its leisurely start, Inferno’s literary pace heats up faster than a burning forest of black spruce gaining momentum, air quality deteriorating and resources stretched. While Asher, a 15-year veteran with the Fort McMurray Fire Department (FMFD) and Mouallem, an Edmonton-based writer, admit taking literary licence with some dialogue, the discourse is gutsy and raw, and the resulting read riveting. With more than 700 firefighters answering Fort McMurray’s call for help that May, some characters are composites, yet by the epilogue the reader feels these folks are kin.

Asher, born and raised in Fort McMurray, could be Inferno’s poster child, epitomizing disaster leadership as his city burned. Still, he explains typical fire-hall vernacular — "piss packs," tree "candling," "cross-overs" and "hose-to-hydrant physics" — simply and contextually throughout the book. Even Asher’s angst is palpable as he orders unscathed subdivisions bulldozed in a "defensive attack."

Inferno recounts the fire crews’ physical hardships — from severe sleep deprivation to bulbous foot blisters — as well as their personal heartbreaks, honestly and openly. Compromised lung health, for example, remains a serious concern for many who battled this blaze. Not only did local firefighters endure worrisome separations from evacuated family, some (including Asher) were left homeless when the smoke finally cleared. A construction contractor in his off-time, Asher’s home was completely destroyed by the Fort Mac blaze. Like his city, he’s currently rebuilding.

"Well, you just look at what’s in front of you and get the job done," says Asher, 40, of the "firefighter instinct" that drives many in his profession.

"Whether you’ve been on the job for three weeks or three decades, no training, no drill, and absolutely no manual can prepare you for your city on fire... (t)he Horse River Fire gave the world a vivid image of what Fort McMurray is really about. What it’s made of. Why we call it home.’’

So does Inferno.

GC Cabana-Coldwell is a Winnipeg-based writer whose younger son is a firefighter in Winnipeg. (Her older son is the Free Press books editor.)



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