Fort McMurray, May 2016

Looking Back

A week ago, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo declared a State of Local Emergency. This time, not because of a fire or flood. This time, due to the current rate at which this pandemic seems to be spreading in our region. The numbers are unbelievable. To make matters worse, a few days ago, the Government of Alberta issued an emergency alert, which, in all honesty, didn’t add anything new for information or measures. The noise alone…I would have hoped that after our track record, the government would have shown more common sense. I suppose we should be used to this kind of thing by now, but I’ll admit, it’s left me thinking. Somewhere deep down, it has me a bit shaken. I can’t help but feel frustrated and angry. The timing is…well…timing. And here we are. May 3rd. Again. And then it comes…

I can’t believe five years have passed since I was forced to leave my home.

To anybody reading this, I apologize in advance for digging anything up that’s best left forgotten. I won’t blame you if you stop reading now.

I’ve resisted the urge to post about this in great detail. Even when it was all happening in 2016, I actually avoided the subject of my own experience. My thoughts – my feelings. I talked a lot about what other people had done and what they saw. Not once did I ever give a genuine account of my own. I was convinced people would read what I had to say because of the fire being “the hot” thing at the time and not because they were actually interested in what I had to say. I’ll never really know if I was right or wrong in that assumption. I’m not sure I really want to know. Instead, I spent my time writing things down in a journal through the whole experience. I kept it close and didn’t really share it with anybody. Not the whole thing. But I do feel like this is as good a time as any to clear the air. So here it goes. This is my story.

I remember the night before the 2016 evacuation, seeing the ashes piled on top of the car outside of Keyano College. I had never seen anything so beautiful and so horrifying all at the same time. At that moment, I didn’t have a clue just how dangerous that was. I believed we were safe – there was no way they’d let anything happen to the city. I told myself and my friends as much. I was wrong.

The next day, I went to work, assured that we could go about our business like any other day. The sky was clear, and the morning passed by quickly. It wasn’t long before I knew something was wrong. As I stood outside of my trailer 45 minutes south of town, I saw thick, dark clouds envelop the sky just north of us. I thought it looked like a volcano had erupted. I suppose that’s not really far from the truth – not literally. We got the call from head office to pack up and go home sooner rather than later. Then, suddenly, I was getting panicked calls from home. So as soon as a work truck became available, I jumped in with a coworker and raced home. The closer and closer we got to town, the more anxious I became. The sky slowly got darker and darker, and there were far more cars heading south than north. Something was up. We still didn’t have any idea what was going on. When we hit the city limits, I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t prepared for this.

Everything was on fire. The trailer park, the gas station, the hotel, and the McDonalds parking lot. All of it. Traffic was almost at a crawl. We were stuck for a bit. Then when things started moving, we headed down the hill towards downtown. The fire had crossed the road. We were driving through flames. There was so much smoke; the heat was overwhelming. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, we had to divert through the downtown core. Ambulances, fire trucks, police cars were flying all over the place. Sirens were blaring, and people were running in all directions. The air was thick and dark. I had never seen anything like it. It was like watching something out of a war movie…or an action disaster film, except that I was in it. I remember thinking that this couldn’t possibly be real. But it was. Very much so.

By the time I got home, everybody was already packing up. I had hopped out of the work truck and walked the remaining few blocks because of all the traffic. I helped my brother grab his two cats and bundle them up into his little truck. He didn’t have a carrier for one of them, and the other was not having a good day. That was a struggle. He headed out a bit before me. Finally, with our bags tossed into the car and the dog in the back seat, we then started the long process of leaving the city. I had thought we’d be back in a day or two. But if I had known how bad things really were, I would have taken a lot more with me. Truth be told, we only had managed to pack a few changes of clothes, a jar of peanut butter, five tins of tea, and all the dog’s stuff. Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at that.

It took us four hours to get out. We left home at about 3:30 or 4:00PM. All the while, that dark cloud behind us got bigger and bigger as the fire got closer and closer. And we were stuck. There were so many people trying to leave all at once. I thought for sure we were going to die, having made it only 2kms from home. I specifically recall a point where I had come to terms with that possibility. There was no cell reception. I couldn’t call anybody. When we finally made it back down the hill out of our neighborhood, we were under the impression we would be directed north, away from the fire. But the police officer at the highway diverted us south instead. Back the way I had just come. I panicked. I can’t tell you how happy I was that I wasn’t driving. I started crying. I didn’t want to go back there. I wanted out. I closed my eyes and left them shut. I couldn’t do this again. The next twenty minutes are a bit of a blur. I remember heading up the hill out of town and realizing the fire had moved on already. All around us, the burnt shells of vehicles and buildings were still smoldering. Then, at some point, we emerged from the cloud and out into sunny, clear air. It was like nothing was going on. I still can’t get over that. At this point, it was nearly 9PM.

Side note: I very clearly remember eating a couple scoops of peanut butter, a few pieces of nearly expired beef jerky, and a gas station hot dog for dinner. I can’t remember when that was. But for some reason, it doesn’t feel right to leave it out.

By the time we hit Edmonton, it was almost 2AM. We were lucky enough to be put up in a basement room with some friends and their family. My brother joined us for the first few nights before moving on to Calgary.

For the next month, we were in a state of limbo. We tried to hear updates as often as possible. For the longest time, we were in the dark. We didn’t know if our place was still there or if it had been burned to the ground. I had nightmares about flames for months. Every time I heard a siren from an emergency vehicle, I would jump and freeze up. Sometimes I would instinctively want to curl up into a ball and hide. I went to a screening of the Jungle Book in theatres, foolishly forgetting that there’s a forest fire scene in it. I remember feeling the heat of the fire from the screen, even though it wasn’t real. All I wanted to do was get out of the theatre as quickly as possible. I tried to make the most of my evacuation, and there were some great moments. But every day was a struggle. I had never felt more alone than I did in that basement. Even after re-entry, things weren’t quite the same. My marriage was faltering. I found myself unemployed. I was growing resentful and disgusted by the “Fort Mac Strong” slogan and bumper stickers. I still can’t explain that one entirely. Although I still find them a bit tacky.

I couldn’t help but notice there was a growing divide in everybody’s fire experience. Some had lost homes, and some had not. Many refused to acknowledge what had happened or even talk about it. I suppose I was one of the “lucky” ones. Despite that we were all from the same town and had gone through the same thing, our outcomes were entirely different and separating us. I was told by some that my experience wasn’t valid because my loss wasn’t big enough. That I hadn’t been impacted by it. But even though the fire hadn’t touched my house, I couldn’t say the same for myself.

Oddly enough, that brings me to today. And COVID. I find myself becoming agitated with the world again. Frustrated with people. Resentful of the political and social climate we find ourselves in. The absolute ignorance. The lack of understanding. The growing divide. And yet, we’re all going through the same thing. Yes, our individual experience is very different. But I can’t help but feel there’s a parallel in all of this.

There’s an interesting theory that suggests one of the reasons World War 2 veterans fared better than Vietnam veterans when it comes to cases of PTSD. This is, in part, due to having larger cycles of debriefing. The theory suggests that because many WW2 vets were shipped home by boat, a process that would take weeks, they had more time to discuss their experiences and come to terms with them. In comparison, Vietnam vets had shorter travel times due to more frequent use of aircraft. This, in turn, decreased the amount of time they spent discussing the events with their peers and potentially leading to more severe cases of PTSD. This is an oversimplification of the theory, and I don’t know how much truth there is in it. I’m certainly not trivializing any veteran’s experiences. You don’t come out of that kind of thing without a few scars. But I believe that there is good that comes out of talking about your experiences and acknowledging the events that have affected you, especially with those who have gone through similar things.

I was lucky in that my friends and family were willing to talk about my experiences with me. I found a new job, where I focused a great deal of my energy after re-entry, and I got to work with a terrific crew. I joined the Emergency Social Services team as a volunteer, learning from some extremely knowledgeable individuals. The people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and calling friends since 2016 have been absolutely incredible. Many of them, survivors of the fire themselves. And yes, I do call myself a survivor. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, we all are.

I’m not sure what the long-term effects of COVID, quarantines, and isolation will be. I know that it is taking its toll and It’s a stressful time for sure. But if you are feeling the pressure, know that you are not alone. You are never alone. Talk to somebody. Talk to a friend…a coworker…a helpline. Do what you have to do.

May has rarely been kind to us Fort McMurray. The world still feels like it’s on fire. But whatever comes, don’t lose hope. Together, we will survive.

Image Credit: TheArtofJayH

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