Literary

Journalist Omar Mouallem and firefighter Damian Asher recount the Fort McMurray wildfire

Fort McMurray Fire Department captain Damian Asher // Supplied photo
Fort McMurray Fire Department captain Damian Asher // Supplied photo

Humble, selfless and brave

Edmonton writer Omar Mouallem joined forces with Fort McMurray Fire Department captain Damian Asher to share a first-person account of battling the horrific wildfire that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray.

The fire spread across 590,000 hectares before it was declared under control on July 5, 2016. With mass media coverage, the story of the fire was everywhere and Fort McMurray made headlines for new reasons.

Mouallem chatted about his experience working with Asher to write Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray.

Vue Weekly: Telling the story of the fire accurately for those that endured the horrors must have been quite a task. Was it daunting?

Omar Mouallem: Our memories fail us even at the best of times, so you can imagine the unreliability of recalling an event that was so chaotic, adrenaline fuelled, and sleep-deprived.

Damian Asher, my co-author and the voice of the story, didn’t sleep for 72 hours, so to say much of it was a blur is an understatement. The timeline of the events, of the fire, and how it spread, is well known so it was often a matter of superimposing their vivid memories of incidents they couldn’t pin to a time or date.

It also helped to interview nearly 20 firefighters and eventually the puzzle pieces fit together. That really helped Damian understand his own narrative and the sequence of events.

VW: We all saw the Fort McMurray fire on television screens. How different was it to hear the experiences firsthand working with Damian?

OM: In the book, Damian shares  [that] Fort McMurray is a great community that has its troubles, but is very family oriented.

Some people think it’s all about the paycheque, and for some living there it is, but if you’re an outdoorsy person it’s quite a paradise and jaw-droppingly gorgeous out in the woods—of which there are plenty. Or there was.

That of course is the wrinkle here: The same geography that makes it a welcoming environment can also make it a hostile environment, and here the beauty became a beast.

Today, it doesn’t just look different but it even sounds and feels different, because of the loss of so much timber. It’s windier, for instance. One thing Damian will tell you is that the fire redefined Fort McMurray to the world. People thought they had it figured out by reducing it to some capitalistic, opportunistic, pollution-loving stereotypes, until they saw the community’s resilience and civility during the biggest evacuation and costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

VW: In talking with Damian and hearing about his grueling experiences battling the fire, what emotions were you feeling?

Omar Mouallem // Supplied

Omar Mouallem // Supplied

OM: Most of the time it was astonishment. Firefighters are by nature so humble and selfless, and more than once I found myself wondering, ‘how does one reach the point where, on instinct, they just focus on how they can help in literally every situation that arises?’ Their courage would leave me in awe over and over again, especially when you start to understand just how quickly the fire was moving—several kilometres by the hour. I felt heartbreak and sadness, thinking about what it would be like for many of these young parents to send their families away not knowing whether they’d see them again, but I think I felt inspired more than anything else. One thing that will surprise people is how often these guys laughed and joked with each other. Firefighters have quite a sense of humour, they have to in order to cope with what they see on the most average of days.

VW: What lessons about humanity and human nature did this story teach you?

OM: The camaraderie within the fire department, and between different fire departments, is remarkable. It was because of this brotherhood and sisterhood they were able to overcome something so fiercely unprecedented, to collaborate and work as one.

Personally, my favourite chapter in the book is when Damian’s crew finds themselves improvising without a truck because his fire engine exploded from exhaustion.

VW: How do you think the fire has transformed Alberta?

OM: Some good that came out of the fires is that the world finally saw Fort McMurray as the resilient and multicultural community it is—and not the stereotypical ATM of a city people think it is. I think it’s reinforced a helpful and friendly spirit in Alberta more than revealed or transformed it. We saw a similar altruism during the Southern Alberta floods—strangers showing up to strangers homes to shovel mud out of basements for whole days, or in this case, driving towards the fire with food and fuel to help stranded evacuees.

VW: What message do you intend to send with the book?

OM: We just wanted to tell an amazing story about courage under pressure and give a glimpse into the incredible quick thinking required to save this city.

Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter’s Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray

By Damian Asher w/ Omar Mouallem

Published by Simon & Schuster

$32

Lisa Lunney
Arts@vueweekly.com

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