I grew up hearing stories about the incomparable Samurai. These warriors were my heroes. Until this year, I never thought I would meet living Samurai, but every single firefighter I interview, female or male, African American, or Asian, old, or young, embodies the noble Samurai’s courage, resilience, and commitment.
There are many stories to be told, but in firefighting, the stories are as extraordinary and diverse as the craft. The consistency in every firefighter’s story is devotion to service. It is hard to believe any individual could be so passionate about their work after 23 years and even more confounding to understand precisely why anyone would risk their lives for two decades, but this is a true story.
Chris Fukai embodies the heart, spirit, and honor of firefighters.
When you first start conversing with Chris, he is frustrating to interview. You hear a humility and passion consistent with most firefighters, but it’s even deeper than that. Fukai is reticent about sharing anything that sounds like boasting. If you ever wonder, why anyone would choose a career where they put their life at risk every day and are humble about it—then you need to read this story.
Chris Fukai is passionate about being a firefighter, but this is not one of those stories where the hero knew that firefighting was his career path from a young age. Chris wanted to be a major league baseball player. Chris loved baseball, and he participated in baseball in high school and college in Spokane, Washington. It was not until Chris joined a “ride-along” with Engine 23 that he realized “this is for me.” Chris was excited about learning all things “firefighting” and felt “this is a good fit for my physical and mental capabilities.” Chris was driving for UPS at the time, but the job was not the right fit for him, so he started studying and testing to become a firefighter. Learning to become a firefighter/EMT is not for the faint of heart; there is some math, and the science behind combustion requires knowing which chemical combinations can feed or fuel fires. You must also be physically fit and maintain physical fitness because you will climb very tall ladders and sometimes carry human beings out of the crowded burning building. A firefighter’s strength is not merely physical; there is a certain kind of resilience and fortitude required of firefighters that surfaces from every interview I have had the pleasure to conduct.
For Chris Fukai, one could ascertain that his strength comes from his family and community. His grandfather was interned at Tule Lake, like most Japanese Americans during World War II despite being Asian American. But like most Japanese families, those experiences are not readily discussed. Chris’s father is Japanese, and Chris’s personality leans more on the cultural side of understatement than boastfulness. Like me, Chris learned as a child about the courage and nobility of the Samurai, but he also learned the honor of being a Samurai was humility. We shared a good laugh as most recruiters and employers implore Asian candidates to brag and boast about capabilities and accomplishments, but it is not culturally polite. So, I had to pull out of Chis why he is a firefighter and why he continues in this career that could conceivably kill him.
Chris never considered firefighting when he was younger. He went to school in Spokane and attended Whitworth College, where he played baseball and majored in Business. Chris was interested in marketing, but he did not feel it fulfilled his interest to serve others. His grandparents lived in Portland, where he often visited. Chris enjoyed learning about Japanese culture from his father and grandfather. Chris grew up with three siblings and his brother now lives in Japan. Family is essential to Chris. Chris is married and has three children living here in Portland. “The reason I can do my job is that I have a wife and kids who support me 110%” shared Chris.
I learned through research that Chris was surprised and honored to be recognized as the 2013 Firefighter of the Year. Chris was especially delighted because those selected are nominated by their peers. Chris’ supervisor and mentor, Capt. Mark Tilden, shared during the ceremonies, “Chris pushes all of us to be better at our craft. His thirst for, and application of knowledge has led him to be highly respected among his peers and the command staff. He’s been instrumental in the development and implementation of more-efficient hose-loads and rescue techniques – and has directly influenced firefighter safety policies,” Tilden was quoted in the East Portland news.
Like most Asian Americans and, more specifically most firefighters, a deep devotion to service reflects honor. Like Chris, most firefighters devote their career to rising to the level of excellence expected of them by their peers, their craft, and their commitment.
Chris responded to Capt. Tilden’s accolades by sharing, “For those of us who wear this [firefighters’] badge, we come into a legacy of service and selflessness – and brotherhood and sisterhood. I have been fortunate to work with amazing people who have pushed me to be better in every single way, not just as a fireman but also as a friend, father, and husband. To call them ‘just like family’ would be disrespectful. They are so much more than family. These are people that I choose to be around and to work with for 24 hours every third day.” © 2013 quote Ashton, East Portland News
When you inquire of Chris about his career goals, he states, “I want to continue being a solid firefighter, staying in shape, keeping up with training, and serving the Portland community.” Chris also devotes his time to training other firefighters. He volunteers for an organization whose mission is to provide firefighters with the best training possible, focusing on the skill, practice, and trade of firefighting. Chris has worked in Hazmat and Training assignments and is currently stationed in NE Portland as a member of the Tech Rescue/ Urban Search and Rescue program.
Chris Fukai is one of a very few Asian Americans serving in the Portland Fire and Rescue Bureau, but like all firefighters, he intends to always be a part of the team and contribute to Portland Fire and Rescue team to the best of his ability.
I inquired “How can the Portland community support firefighters?” Chris laughs “please get out of the way when you hear a fire engine horn blaring its warning. We are on our way to put out a fire, rescue someone out of a horrific motor vehicle accident, respond to a potential chemical explosion or assist someone who cannot breathe. Time is of the essence, and the quicker motorists yield to firetrucks, the faster we can be of best help.” Fukai added.
On March 3, 2012, Oregonian firefighter Paul Corah (whom I previously wrote a story about) shared that “Typically, a fire doubles in size every two minutes. In a space chock-full of things, fire mushrooms every 30 seconds because of the extra fuel.” Firefighter Chris Fukai knows firsthand as he has waded through homes where the piles of debris are shoulder high. Chris was part of the fire crew that once had to cut a front door in half to maneuver past the hoard of tin cans.
“Once we stepped foot inside the house, we were on top of the debris,” Chris revealed. “You could feel newspapers and magazines two feet inside the door. You are crawling in, and you are going up. That is not good. “When Fukai enters a burning home, he’s searching for survivable spaces in an alien landscape. The piles of paper, garbage, and despair provide fuel for the flames and a maze for the firefighter. The other thing Firefighter Fukai recommends is to clear your home of debris. If you have a family member that is a hoarder, please assist them by securing mental health help because they could perish in a dangerous fire.
Chris learned that the family name of Fukai means “deep well”.
Chris embodies just that— a wise old soul in a young body. He shared that while he works with many twenty-something recruits, he appreciates the wisdom and life experience of the 50-something firefighters because they carry experiential knowledge that cannot be learned from textbooks or training courses. From his own two decades of experience, Chris knows that paying close attention to those who have survived dangerous fires and natural disasters can teach younger firefighters a great deal.
Chris Fukai admires the life and example of firefighters like Chief David Campbell, who lost his life while fighting and protecting his crew during the 1911 Union Oil Fire in SE Portland. Chris Fukai appreciates the message of Chief Campbell “leading from the front.” Chris adds, “all of the fallen firefighters have played an essential role in Portland Fire, and we cannot forget their legacy. “
“We benefit from their leadership and reputation of excellence.” Chris Fukai choked up, sharing about a fellow firefighter presently battling cancer. “We are discovering in the twenty-first century that the hazard to firefighters is not just the fire. Firefighters are contracting cancer and other illnesses from firefighting. It is important to honor fallen firefighters’ ultimate sacrifice to community and humanity.”
Chris Fukai encourages all Portlanders to support and contribute to the Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial. Charitable contributions can be made right here on Facebook without any administrative fees to the Nonprofit. Donors can also peruse the website at Davidcampbellmemorial.org to see the design of the Fallen Firefighter Memorial, which is both humble and hopeful, like the heart of firefighters. Located on the East bank Esplanade next to Station 21, the Fallen Firefighter Memorial will be a teaching tool and a historical legacy for all firefighters, their families, and the Portland community. The memorial can be seen directly across the river from downtown Portland and will light up in red when a firefighter has perished, as well as other memorable events like 9/11. The memorial can be seen from the OHSU Cancer Center, where firefighters are presently undergoing treatment for fire-related cancer.
Whether responding to a fire, pulling people out of motor vehicle accidents, or maneuvering a natural disaster Chris Fukai and all firefighters are my new heroes. They are very much like the noble Samurai, ready to face any obstacle with tremendous courage and in service to the greater good.
Elizabeth Asahi Sato, CDO
David Campbell Memorial Association for the
Portland Fallen Firefighter Memorial