Wildfire writers: Fort McMurray's forest fire book boom

In the last couple of months several authors have launched books chronicling the devastating wildfire which forced the evacuation of over 80,000 people.

‘We are in a reflection period and everyone goes through that after major events. Reflection is what art is'

Ashley Tobin wrote a collection of essays about the many stories of evacuation and re-entry during the Fort McMurray wildfire. (David Thurton/CBC)

When a wildfire in May forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, everyone who escaped the flames had a story to tell.

Almost a year later some of those harrowing stories are making their way onto bookshelves.

In the last couple of months several authors have launched books chronicling the devastating forest fire which forced over 80,000 people to flee and is now considered one of Canada's costliest insured disasters.

Diana Moser, communications and program manager for Arts Council Wood Buffalo, said she's seeing an upsurge in people putting their stories in writing since the wildfire.
Inside the Inferno is a firefighter's tale of what it was like to battle the Fort McMurray wildfire. (Simon & Schuster Canada)

"There's definitely been a boom in expression in the literary form for sure," Moser said. "It's really interesting to see that expression come together and come out, especially in books."

On Wednesday, a Fort McMurray bookstore hosted the launch of Inside the Inferno.

Damian Asher, a captain in the Fort McMurray fire department, and Edmonton-based writer and journalist Omar Mouallem co-wrote the insider take on taming "the beast."

The book hits bookshelves May 2, the day before the wildfire's one-year anniversary.

Asher said the book was written in his voice, but it's not a tell-all tale of what went wrong or right when about 150 local firefighters defended a city encircled by flames.

Instead it reflects on the tears, laughter and tension that occurs when firefighters must save someone else's home while theirs burns.

"I've had my own set of issues that we have had to deal with; losing my house and losing all my possessions," Asher said. "It is hard to deal with."
Co-author Damian Asher poses with Coles bookstore manager Jackie Marsh at the launch of Inside the Inferno. (David Thurton/CBC)

Mouallem wrote several magazine articles about the immediate aftermath of the wildfire before publisher Simon and Schuster approached him to help write the book.

Inside the Inferno, he said, offers readers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the ingenious and improvised methods firefighters used to extinguish ember-sparked spot fires when conventional equipment proved too slow to fight the constant rain of embers.

"I think what will surprise people is how much of the firefighting had to be figured out on the fly," Mouallem said. "At some point they were using garden hoses that they would find in people's yards to fight the fire."
Diana Moser, with Arts Council Wood Buffalo, says Fort McMurray is in for a wildfire book boom. (Arts Council Wood Buffalo)

First of many books

Inside the Inferno may be just the first book to be written from a firefighter's point of view, however.

Publishers have already approached former Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen about signing a book deal. Allen said in an interview with CBC News in February he's giving the idea some thought.

Already in print is 93, Ashley Tobin's collection of essays and stories about the evacuation.

Tobin asked others to share handwritten stories about their wildfire experiences after she realized writing helped her cope with the trauma of escaping the wildfire.

"Through my evacuation I journalled." Tobin said. "I find there's so much healing in releasing a story."

Tobin received so many responses from writers that she's working on a second book to be released later this month.

But not all the books emerging from the wildfire are focused on the great escape and rebuilding.
Elizabeth Anthony's Over the Falls was launched after the wildfire and shares the personal story of a mother as her daughter battles addiction. (Submitted)

Elizabeth Anthony's Over The Falls landed on local bookshelves in March and is about her family's struggle and reliance on faith to overcome addictions.

Nevertheless, the story's universal themes could resonate with people whose lives were changed by the wildfire.

"Although maybe someone doesn't have a loved one with addiction, I think there is definitely something they can get out of the book," Anthony said.

Moser expects Fort McMurray will see more works in the coming months and years.

Moser said there are a lot of writers who are busy rebuilding homes and she expects once their lives are settled they will begin to put pen to paper.

"It's a transformative event," Moser said. "Now we are in a reflection period and everyone goes through that after major events in your life. And reflection is what art is."