Fort McMurray firefighter who lost home to wildfire ready to rebuild

A year after Mark Stephenson watched helplessly as his home burned down, he's still haunted by the loss.

The Fort McMurray wildfire, which forced more than 80,000 people to flee their homes and reduced entire neighbourhoods to rubble, was a force of nature that left the veteran municipal firefighter feeling powerless.

"As a firefighter, we try to do everything we can," Stephenson said in an interview with CBC News on the eve of the one-year anniversary. "And it was hard to give up, it was hard to leave areas just because we didn't have the resources to take care of it.

"Guilty would be the wrong word for it. But it is sort of on track. We don't like to lose."

'We were losing around every corner'

A sense of panic overwhelmed the city on May 3, 2016, as the wildfire jumped the Athabasca River and encircled the city.  At times, the flames advanced at 30 to 40 metres per minute, and the fire created its own thunder and lightning. Ash clouds could be seen from space.

"At that point, in that first day and a half, it seemed like we were losing around every corner," Stephenson said.

"Seeing reports coming in that this neighbourhood is gone, this neighbourhood is gone, this building is gone, it just seemed like there was high potential for us losing the entire city."

They saved the city, but not without staggering losses.

The fire eventually destroyed more than 2,400 homes and buildings and burned 589,552 hectares of boreal forest. In total, some 20 Fort McMurray firefighters lost their homes. 

Even now, remnants of the blaze still smoulder underground on the outskirts of Fort McMurray.

'It's only a home babe'

The day the blaze swept into the city, Stephenson was dispatched to his own neighbourhood in Abasand. By some strange twist of fate, he found himself on his own street, Abbottswood Drive.

By the time he arrived, the flames were dancing across his neighbor's fence and the treeline was smouldering ash.

With few tools, he smashed down his garage door, retrieved his chainsaw and got to work cutting down flaming timber.

The water in their hoses turned to a slow dribble. A nearby pumping station had been damaged, rendering them defenceless against the inferno.

Stephenson used a garden hose in a desperate attempt to save what he could, but the area was overrun by flames. The crew was ordered to retreat in search of water trucks and more manpower.

When they returned 45 minutes later, Stephenson's home was fully engulfed.

"It's only a home, babe," he told his wife in a short cellphone video he shot that day from his front yard.  "Love you. I'm safe. Glad you guys got out OK."

 After a few stolen seconds to watch his home burn and collapse, Stephenson got back in the truck and moved up the street, where flames threatened to consume a condo complex.

There was no time for emotion.

'What we do is who we are' 

"What we do is who we are, we're professional firefighters," Stephenson said. "There was no point in my mind where I thought, I need to sit on the curb here and cry. Because that would accomplish nothing.

"That would help nobody, that wouldn't have even helped myself at the time. It would have brought me into despair."

Stephenson slept for a few hours in the back of the truck that night, and carried on fighting fires for three more days.

A year later, he still struggles to speak about his personal loss. He misses the irreplaceable mementos — his high school football jacket, baby books and his childhood teddy bear — just as much as he did when he spoke to CBC News a year ago.

During quiet moments, memories of the wildfire still rush into his mind. Empty streets once again turn red with fire, reminding him of what could not be saved.

"There are some hard days, or some bad days, when you have flashbacks or you think back to that day," he said.

"It's bittersweet, I guess. We're firefighters, we like to go do what we can do to stop these things. But there was really no stopping it. I've had some hard times with it because it was everything I owned."