Tuesday May 02, 2017

How a Fort McMurray fire captain helped save the city but lost his home

Firefighter Damian Asher has fought fires for 16 years but never like the 2016 May wildfire in Fort McMurray.

Firefighter Damian Asher has fought fires for 16 years but never like the 2016 May wildfire in Fort McMurray. (Courtesy of Simon and Shuster)

Listen 23:40

Read story transcript

It was a year ago when a wildfire in Fort McMurray consumed close to 2,500 buildings within days.

Firefighters rushed in from across the province, the country and the world to help local firefighters defeat what became known as "The Beast."

In the end, firefighters would save the majority of the city, but the fire resulted in the largest evacuation Canada has ever seen — racking up $3.6 billion in insurance claims.

Captain of Fort McMurray Fire Hall #5 Damian Asher is one of those who headed toward the fire. He's been a firefighter for 16 years and shares his experience battling the May 2016 fire in Inside The Inferno: A Firefighter's Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray.

"We fought many fires before. We fought many house fires that have spread into multiple fires. But I don't think anybody ever plans to be that extended with that many fires and that many different locations at one time," Asher tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Asher with kids

Damian Asher with his kids. They stayed in a camper when residents of Fort McMurray were evacuated. (Courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

He says the hardest thing to come to terms with when fighting a fire "is knowing that with one house we can make a difference, but when you start hitting multiple houses, instead of actually fighting the fire we just change our direction to … stopping the fire from spreading."

Watching a house burn and seeing what someone is losing is never easy for Asher. He says he can't help but wonder what he could have done differently if he could have saved something personal in the house.

"Several of us lost our houses," Asher tells Tremonti. His house in Saprae Creek could not be saved. 

"One crew. One house. It would be selfish to move in and try and make a difference. My truck, my crew were needed for support in another area where there were potential multiple losses. So we had to move to those areas."

He recalls coming back to see his house after the fire had passed the majority of the city. "Everything was gone. There was absolutely nothing left on the property. All that I had at that point in time was my uniform on my back."

Asher rebuilding house

Damian Asher has lived in Fort McMurray for 40 years and is now rebuilding a new home for his family. (Courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

Asher tells Tremonti he normally doesn't wear his wedding ring because it could be a hazard and it was the first thing he went looking for in the debris. He found it, unharmed.

"It was tarnished but it was intact. It still looked exactly like it was when I bought it."

Asher has lived in Fort McMurray for 40 years and is now building a new house for his family on the same land where their old home was.

While it's noisier than it was before with just open space around their lot, Asher sees a future.

"When you look out your window you expect to see trees. You don't see that anymore," he says.

"But things will regrow, things will get replanted and we'll get it back to what we had."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.