Saturday, July 26, 2008

Okay, so I've been slack...

But here's a review from the National Post.

Firefighters silent as their job takes its toll

Robert Wiersema, Weekend Post
Published: Saturday, July 26, 2008



Thomas Allen

271 pp., $32.95


Most people have a fairly solid image of firefighters as heroic, stalwart, calendar-ready hunks dramatically backlit by flames, occasionally guilty of bad behaviour (excused by their sacrifices). As far as contemporary heroes go, firefighters are pretty much the pinnacle, especially after 9/11.

The trouble with this image is that it's almost entirely superficial, with little rooting in the reality of a firefighter's daily existence. And unlike those doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers who have produced a body of literature exploring the interstices of their professional and personal lives, a firefighter has yet to write the definitive tell-all book about the heroics and, occasionally, heroic failures of the job.

Into this void steps Newfoundland writer Russell Wangersky, with a memoir of his eight years as a volunteer firefighter, and the lingering aftermath of those years. It is, at times, a shocking, brave work, the sort of book you sense the author needed to write. Wangersky dreamed of being a firefighter for most of his life, but, as he writes, "what had been a dream became a kind of personal nightmare, as bit by bit the underpinnings of wonder and heroics fell away. I was left with horrors I still live with now, horrors that can, occasionally, sneak up on me when I don't expect them, smashing my confidence and leaving me unable to control my temper or my fears."

Organized in a loosely chronological narrative, the book follows Wangersky from the age of 21, when he joins the volunteer fire department in Wolfville, N. S., training and gradually earning his place in the firehall. The narrative gains force and intensity as Wangersky recounts his experiences in the field. This is not the tabloid heroism of the breathless headlines: Wangersky captures the confusion and fear of being inside a burning building as floors suddenly disappear; the tragedies narrowly averted; the sense of shock as the crew struggles to recover the body of a woman from a car crash. Wangersky, a long-time journalist who is now the editor of The Telegram in St. John's, handles these scenes with a terse candour, balancing an in-the-moment experiential quality with a keen eye for detail and the larger ramifications of what happens.

The heart of the book, though, is in his account of the emotional toll it all takes. Volunteer firefighting is not the sort of job one leaves at the office: You're either waiting for calls that can come at any moment, or reeling in the wake of what has happened, bad or good. Add to that

the traditional silence of the department, where one does not talk about the emotional reaction to what one has witnessed, and you have the makings of a breakdown. Wangersky documents his steady spiral into post-traumatic stress disorder with a frankness that is at once brutal and emotionally devastating. He struggles with insomnia, obsession, incipient alcoholism and other difficulties. In the end, his dream costs him his mental health and his marriage, changing him in ways that probably still elude his full understanding. The sad irony for Wangersky and his colleagues in the firehall is that such sacrifices make the heroism that much more significant.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Readings and tragedies

I'm just back from a reading at Fisher's Loft in Port Rexton - a magnificent Newfoundland inn - where I read for a half an hour or so and realized something about the book that may not be good for me in the long run. More and more, after I read, people come up to me and tell me about their involvement in fires and accidents. I've heard from fire victims, relatives of fire victims, other firefighters, front-line emergency workers and 911 operators, all of whom tell me about their experiences. I'm glad they can find some release, but I find their experiences vivid and lately, some have even worked their way into my dreams as well. Very unsettling. One think I hadn't realized is that my experience is far from unique.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Voice from the past

Monday night, an e-mail turned up in my inbox, and last night, the telephone rang and it was Dave Hennessey. Dave was a firefighter who joined the Wolfville fire department at the same time I did, and features fairly prominently in the first part of Burning Down the House. He has a knack for finding me, and bringing me up to speed on a whole bunch of things. But last night, I was surprised to learn that my old department played a critical role in bringing critical stress debriefing to Nova Scotia fire departments - and that one of the fire captains I knew well, Sandy Fraser, had gone on to work with departments all over the province to help deal with traumatic fires and accidents. There are plenty of fire departments that now are well on top of the issue: as part of its training program, for example, Riverview, New Brunswick now has family members of prospective first responders come in for preliminary courses, too. As for Wolfville and critical stress debriefing, I'm glad to hear one of my old departments has played such a prominent role.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Dissected gently by Enright

There are those who like him, and those who don't, but one thing you can say about CBC's Michael Enright is that he's pretty darned good at what he does. He's one of the few interviewers who is downright likely to ask you about something you might have written in 1987, and he asks questions that, while you're answering them, a part of your brain is screaming "Do I really want to answer this?" But of course, by then it's too late. So a half-hour or so talking to him about Burning Down the House was something I both looked forward to, and at the same time, dreaded. Was I glad to have the opportunity to be on Sunday Edition? Of course. Was it professional and insightful and thorough? Yes. Without a doubt. But I'd sure hate to have Enright gunning for me. He's too fast, and too good. I have now appeared in an interview that made me feel completely naked, and that's still available in podcast form on their site.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review from the Hour in Montreal

May 8th, 2008
Burning Down the House - Web exclusive!
Write a comment on this article !

Hot damn
Melora Koepke

Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself, by Russell Wangersky (Thomas Allen), 271 pp.

Ex-firefighter Russell Wangersky mines the glowing embers of his mind and produces an affecting tale

Russell Wangersky's memoir, Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself, is a book that would not be written by most firefighters. There are taboos about talking about what you see, with your brothers or your families, let alone a reading public. You cannot talk about what nobody talks about, especially the nagging uncertainty about whether you even helped, or what it means to help, or whether there is any help to give. Nobody is supposed to remember things this well, the fires and accident scenes and injuries and deaths they've seen over the course of their years as a volunteer firefighter. But of course - and this is the first secret that Wangersky reveals - they do. At least Wangersky does, in searing, clear, torturous detail. One suspects his ultra-precise writer's eye for surveying detail and analyzing situations contributed to his skill as a firefighter (he was twice voted Firefighter of the Year by the brotherhood) as well as to the post-traumatic stress syndrome that finally dismantled his self, his sanity and his ability to live his own day-to-day life.
Wangersky, the editor-in-chief of the St-John's Telegram who began volunteer firefighting in the Maritimes as a 20-year-old with an honours degree in philosophy, relates, with patient precision, what it's like to be the first on the scene for countless unimaginable human tragedies, and for these kinds of events to be exactly the opposite of "unimaginable." They are in fact ever present in Wangersky's imagination; his waking hours and sleep have both been constantly interrupted by hallucinations and nightmares of accidents, injuries and deaths unfolding again and again.

His renderings of long-ago events are carved into the page so sharply and baroquely that readers will almost see them as he does, and as though they had also been there. Wangersky's first book, a collection of short stories entitled The Hour of Bad Decisions, was long-listed for the Giller and Commonwealth Writers' Prizes, and here he is describing his own life. The images are so well rendered, in fact, that the prose might call attention to itself, if it was something else that was being written about. But the fact is that Wangersky has such a story to tell us that the tightly controlled, occasionally extravagant writing only serves to send the point home.

Certainly, there is material here for readers curious about what fire can do to a house, or a person trapped inside, or about the mechanics of removing someone's twisted limbs from a car or a piece of farm equipment. But Wangersky has created a strange, effective structure for his memories. In chapters about various scenes, fires and victims he has seen, has helped or not helped, he is mapping the landscape of his own mind, looking for a way through.

Back from the road...

Just back from Burlington, Ontario, and the Different Drummer bookstore's reading series. It boasts that it's Canada's longest-running reading series, and it sure knows how to do thing right. Nine o'clock on a sunny spring morning, and 220 people show up to hear three authors read. It is an amazing event, and an amazing bookstore. If you're ever in Burlington, take the time to see an independent bookstore that really knows its stuff.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Another story...

This one's from the Kentville Advertiser - and what I love about it is that the reporter went back and talked to some of the firefighters I worked with in Wolfville.


Many young boys dream of becoming a firefighter. However, for Russell Wangersky, it wasn’t long before his dream job turned into a nightmare.

Burning Down the House is the true story of this critically acclaimed author’s eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter.

Wangersky was an Acadia University student working in the periodicals section of the Vaughan Library when he applied to join the Wolfville Volunteer Fire Department. It was 1983.

He and Wolfville native David Hennessey were young and enthusiastic recruits. Under the tutelage of veterans like Gerald Wood, Tim MacLeod and Harold Stewart, Wangersky learned the ropes.

He saw his first dead body after an accident in Gaspereau and, almost surprisingly, he became hooked on the fire service. About 18 months later, Wangersky left Wolfville to pursue work in Ontario. He served later as a firefighter outside St. John’s, Newfoundland and reached the rank of deputy chief.

Burning Down the House offers a unique insider’s vision of the often dangerous world of firefighting. It’s a heartfelt memoir about the emotional and psychological toll firefighting took on Wangersky’s personal life, including his marriage, family and, ultimately, his mind.

Written in a visceral literary prose, Wangersky takes readers with him on a harrowing journey of car accidents, house fires and medical calls. Building a map of traumatic memories — from performing CPR on a colleague’s father to close calls in house fires and an almost fatal fuel explosion — Wangersky reveals the secrets of firefighting that many emergency workers never let themselves admit.

He still suffers night terrors when he wakes up reliving first responder situations.

Haunted by pieces of experience

Bob Cook, who is the mechanic on staff at the Wolfville station, can relate. He says most volunteers are haunted by pieces of their experience. For him, it was a collision involving a girl about the same age as his daughters.

Today, Cook says those in the fire service are better at recognizing when their peers need help. “People aren’t smoke-eaters anymore. They don’t have to be big heroes. If they withdraw and change character, we know they need help.”

Tim MacLeod, who is now Wolfville’s fire chief, remembers Wangersky and that accident in Gaspereau. He has read Burning Down the House and compliments the author, saying, “it’s a good read.”

MacLeod says firefighters compartmentalize the trauma they experience in different ways. Since the early ‘80s, Critical Incident Stress Debriefings have been instituted so the mental health of members can be maintained.

According to MacLeod, all firefighters will recognize the adrenalin rush Wangersky describes so well. He adds that most go on auto pilot when actually firefighting.

“It’s afterward that you replay it,” he says. “Collisions are hard to swallow. You have to be heartless. There aren’t a lot of breaks in the fire service.”

MacLeod notes that the department Wangersky went to in Newfoundland was about half the size of Wolfville’s, but “you can see a lot of shit in eight years,” he says of his career fighting fires.

The fire chief remembers the author as an atypical recruit in the sense of size. “He was a little guy.” He says his department trains about six or seven recruits each year.

“We’ve had some really good students. They get better training now,” notes MacLeod. “One went on to be fire chief in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”

The managing editor of the Telegram in St. John’s, Wangersky is also a writer whose first collection of short stories, The Hour of Bad Decisions, was longlisted for a Giller Award. Burning Down the House sells for $32.95.

Globe and Mail Review


May 10, 2008


Fighting Fires and Losing Myself

By Russell Wangersky

Thomas Allen, 271 pages, $32.95
Print Edition - Section Front

The Globe and Mail

I now know that "a thin, sugary smell reminiscent of caramel" may sometimes presage a hay fire. That the heavy protein foam used by firefighters smells "for all the world like hot dogs." That "10-45" on a police scanner is code for the discovery of a dead body and "Code-4 medical" is shorthand for a patient just moments away from perishing. That in a house fire, paint blisters fast and then "the bubbles crust over black" before splitting. I now know that whether you live or die in a gas explosion sometimes comes down to "bare-naked chance": whether you happen to be inhaling or exhaling at the moment of "whoof."

I know all this thanks to Russell Wangersky and his remarkable, almost Proustian book, Burning Down the House. Now the editor of the Telegram in St. John's, he served for eight years as a volunteer firefighter in two locales: the Annapolis Valley town of Wolfville, in Nova Scotia, and Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula.

The book is a record of what he saw and heard, smelled, felt and thought while responding to emergency calls. "Suffering" is not too strong a word to describe the impact of that experience on him, and I imagine that the act of putting it all down on paper (relying, it seems, on a photographic memory) provoked yet more suffering. By his own admission, his family suffered. Out of that apparently shattering experience has come this astonishingly visceral piece of writing.

Here is Wangersky on the sounds of one fire: "A hardware store was the first occasion I ever heard spray paint cans exploding, a bright, sharp crack of overheated metal, and then the deeper whumps as gallons of house paint blew their lids all along a shelving unit. It was a kaleidoscope of sound, that fire - the explosions, the crackling wood, the body slam of the plate glass front window suddenly reaching its thermal limit and blowing out all over the parking lot in great, long, reaching shards."

Fighting fires and rushing to accidents, he writes, is "a sensory wonder." Indeed. Burning Down the House is so graphic that the book's preface features a warning to that effect.

The reader is spared no detail. And yet I never found myself being repulsed by the images. I was more inclined to admire the hand that crafted them. Broken ribs cause Wangersky to ruminate on "the tinker-toy construction of the chest." Staunching the flow of blood made him feel "like I was mucking around in ochre soup, trying to find a cut artery like it's some sort of live and spraying rubbery noodle." When chickens catch fire in a barn blaze, they run - "small, angry meteors rushing along the ground in straight and urgent lines."

The author makes it perfectly clear that many others who serve as volunteer firefighters in this country's small and rural places are able to park their sensitivities, to get the job done and move on - without obsession, without nightmares, without anguish and tears. He could not. Wangersky got hooked, well and truly addicted, to the rush of adrenalin.

Burning Down the House is such a raw book, one that lays bare both terrible moments in time and the author's own unravelling. Over and over, he breaks down a blaze or a crash, probing its anatomy, its beginning and its end. This is a cautionary tale, one you might want to give to a teenager newly licensed to drive, or to a man who thinks he drives better with a few beers under his belt, or a woman who has removed the batteries from the smoke detector because it goes off when she fries bacon. I was left with a powerful sense of just how fragile the human body is, how vulnerable to tons of metal and rubber moving along at 120 kilometres an hour, how sometimes nefarious in nature is the "red devil" called fire.

Accidents portrayed on film and television somehow seem neater, certainly quieter. Crash victims don't scream all the while they're being rescued, but some do in this book. If I thought "the jaws of life" always get that trapped driver out quickly, I don't think that any more.

I would have wished for even more from the author on the actual physics of fire, while the material on his personal torments (the doubting, self-loathing and self-absorption) was almost too much to bear. But when Wangersky is rushing to the scene of a house in flames or to carnage on a dark county road, he is an all-senses-charged witness with an unerring eye for detail. In this haunting meditation on fate and chance, he literally takes you there.

His first collection of short stories, The Hour of Bad Decisions, was long-listed in 2006 for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Mark down the name. He's a comer.

Starting out

"Starting out in Wolfville, I had my mitts, a two-dollar throwaway flashlight -- the first one I bought was white, but there would be many more -- an aluminum hose tool for tightening connections, and eight feet of lightweight yellow nylon rope, coiled tightly and tied around itself. And helmet number nine--that was the number I signed out on everything. ...

I was in locker number nine, an open-front wooden locker in a row of real firefighters, all the other gear on either side of me, all of it belonging to the kind of guys who ran into burning houses while their owners were running out. ... They all looked bigger than real life to me, every one of them, all huge and serious and professional, incapable of either fear or doubt. Guys who knew what to do, always."

From Burning Down the House

Lawrence Scanlan lived in a small place - a village in Southeastern Ontario called Camden East - for 17 years. He is researching a book on volunteers and philanthropists.

Long time, no post

Just over a week ago, I heard from a former Vancouver 911 operator, someone who outlined the same types of problems I ran into. I've heard from a volunteer firefighter in Quebec who quit after first watching someone burn to death after being pinned in a crashed pickup truck, and then seeing the victims of a plane crash. He spent six months in his department. Both of them have trouble shaking what they've had to deal with. I'm beginning to wonder about the wisdom of continuing to read and reread parts of my book. Today, I head to Burlington to read at Different Drummer, and I'm still at sea about what I'm going to read. When I've read - and during some interviews - I've gotten choked up and close to tears. There is no safe ground in the book, and every place I go, I hear that there are plenty of people facing the same sorts of things. Several people have told me that they think the book serves a valuable service - I hope so. I hope it doesn't keep anyone from joining a department, but I hope it lets them see the possibilities. Oh, and the Globe and Mail's reviewer really liked the book. I might well pinch the review and post it here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Beginning

I started to write this book hoping that I would be able to show people a little of the other side of firefighting: the side you don't see in movies and television. The side to emergency workers where accidents, fires and deaths come home with you to your own living room. I have to say I started with a little bit of anger, too - anger at the fact that it wasn't immediatly obvious that firefighters are people, and are bound to react to traumatic scenes much the same way other people do. I think I've managed to escape the anger, and that may mean I get to escape the trauma as well. Some time. This blog will talk about my travels with this book, where I find myself, and what I'm doing. Cathartic for me - and hopefully, interesting for anyone who might read it. If you have questions, send them as comments, and I'll answer as best I can. If you have critiques, send them as well - I'll steam for a day or two, but then I'll read them with clear eyes, and I'll learn from them.
Come back anytime.