I’ve been back in Fort McMurray for nearly three weeks now. I had intended on writing sooner but the weight of re-entry into the city has been more taxing on me than I had originally thought possible. The level of devastation I have seen in the aftermath of the fire has been indescribable. Despite my best efforts, words have not found me the way they usually do and my searches for them have come up empty. And so …. silence. That is, until now.
Through all the media reports we had received during our evacuated life in Edmonton, nothing could have prepared us for our return to the city I’ve called home for the last 4 1/2 years. Our house was still standing, the same way we left it when we were evacuated a month earlier, completely untouched by the fire. Walking through the house for the first time was weird; books, mail and charging cables were still where we left them as we fled the burning city. A pair of pants I had worn to work the day we were evacuated were still recklessly sprawled on the bed where I had tossed them. Having a life that you’ve been separated from on display before you is simply bizarre – almost like experiencing a vivid dream. To an extent, returning home was almost like walking through a museum. Even untouched, the smell of smoke was present throughout and we spent days airing it out and using bulk amounts of Febreze. We could have come home to something much worse.
Even though 85 – 90% of the city was saved through the amazing efforts of the emergency crews that held the line against “The Beast,” I’m still in disbelief over how many people I know who have been more directly impacted by the fire. Many friends and acquaintances have experienced minor to extensive smoke damage. Others, have suffered far worse. For my part, I am really not sure how to handle these situations. The period for cracking jokes has long since gone. Nothing I say can bring their homes back. Part of me feels guilty for having something to come back to. All I can offer is support, a hug and a pillow if they need it. I don’t feel like it will ever be enough.
As for me, I have been trying to keep busy since I’ve returned. The sound of sirens and the sight of flames no longer haunt or frighten me the way they did the weeks following the evacuation. I am happy to say, this makes getting a full night’s sleep much easier. Also, I have been unable to return to work so far due to some damage and restriction on site. While this is not ideal for my bank account, it has certainly had a positive impact on my creativity. I have been painting more frequently; an activity I have enjoyed in the past but never really committed to. I’m far from being a skilled artist, but I do find it relaxing and quite fun. I have also done several excursions out into burnt sections of forest surrounding the city with my camera. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting everything to be so green; the regenerative abilities of the forest are stunningly beautiful, more so amidst the charred remains.
This observation has also led to me doing some gardening. A week or two after we had returned, I felt the need to contribute in any way I could to add to the greenery in the city. One of the first items I had purchased was a tomato plant, which is now growing like a weed. This was soon followed by an herb garden, including basil, mint and parsley. Needless to say, I couldn’t stop there and, with the help of Diana (my wife), suddenly had two baskets of flowers, a pot of lavender and two pepper plants. Our back deck has become a bit of an oasis, especially with the view of the pond not far away. Now, I sit and sip on some gin and soda while typing surrounded by a small jungle and thoughts of my accomplishments over the last few weeks and I can’t help but feel a sense of ease wash over me.
Everybody from Fort McMurray has been on a journey since evacuation on May 3rd, 2016; not every story will be the same. The effects of the fire have hit us all in different ways and to varying degrees. Make no mistake of it though, everyone has been hit by the event; no journey or story is invalid. Even so, I can’t speak for everybody personally. All I can do is tell my tale, how it makes me feel and how I’ve been dealing with it. While I wasn’t burned by fire, I have been marked by it. I believe the best thing to do is acknowledge it and learn from it – the experience has become a part of me.
To friends that have suffered or lost – I am here if you need to talk, borrow an ear or need a safe place to stay; that’s all I can offer.
And as for me……
My silence has come to an end.