A New Appreciation for “F” Words
Fort McMurray – My home.
Family – My dear ones, my heart, my life.
Friends – My comrades, my neighborhood, my confidants, my peeps.
Fire – The beast that threatened to take it all away.
There are moments in my life story that I shall never forget:
I can tell you exactly what I was doing on January 28th, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I watched the television with a group of about 120 other University students. In a single moment of time, I watched it blow up in what was described as a “major malfunction”. We all sat in silence – perhaps in shock – at what we knew would be a moment in time that we would never forget. I felt helpless and alone in a room full of people.
September 11, 2001 – The same feeling of shock came over me as I watched a plane hit the second Twin Tower in New York City. I literally could not believe my eyes. As I write about this now I can remember sitting at my teacher’s desk crying. I felt helpless and alone in a school full of children and teachers.
May 3rd, 2016 holds another moment in time where time stood still. I watched the smoke from a wildfire that was approaching my beautiful northern Alberta city. The flames licking at the treetops had now jumped the river. The evacuation of one area or another was now citywide. My friends and family and all of Fort McMurray were fleeing. It was surreal at first. Unbelievable really. The bridge and the water treatment plant were being threatened. I felt helpless and alone as I gathered a few belongings to take in my car. My Toronto Blue Jays jersey made the cut but my precious inherited clock sat forgotten at the top of the stairs.
I drove down Thickwood with my two precious fur babies sitting shotgun. It occurred to me that we were facing what seemed the impossible task of evacuating 80,000 people on one of only two roads out of town. I never realized that I could feel so helpless and alone while surrounded by thousands of people in their own vehicles – and yet here I sat.
I remember speaking out loud to my steering wheel. “What is even happening?” Soon a mantra emerged: please keep my friends and family safe. I looked beside me through the side window of my car to see a woman driving a grey Honda Civic with a small child in the back seat. The woman looked terrified as she stared straight ahead following the endless sea of red lights. My mantra changed: please keep my friends and family and that lady and her child safe. A few moments later a fire truck with lights flashing and sirens screaming tried to drive through the congested streets. The cars and trucks began to climb the meridian to make room. A new mantra: please keep my friends and family and that lady and her child and the firemen safe. Repeat.
As I passed the High School I saw two teenagers walking opposite the traffic. I wondered where they were walking. How worried I would be if I were their parent. A new mantra: please keep my friends a family and that lady and her child and the firemen safe and help those boys find their family. Repeat.
The mantra continued to grow and change as I passed vehicles, smiled at strangers and received water from a family in a car stopped by the side of the road. It was all they had to give and they gave it to me.
It was sometime during this initial first few hours that the feeling of being helpless and alone was replaced with feelings of strength and community.
Over the next several weeks I came to know this community, my community, in a way that I had not known before. I watched small miracles occur on a daily basis and generosity beyond anything I had experienced or witnessed before. Nightly I scoured social media for updates on the status of the fire and waited to hear the fate of my friend’s homes.
It became evident that a war was waged by the “Fire” and in the end was defeated. Our city was battered and bruised but our people remained strong and determined. Forty days after that initial evacuation, our family returned.
Over the next several months and several years, our friends and neighbors will rebuild; Fort McMurray remains resilient and my home.
As for the “Fire”, well fire is just another four letter “F” word.