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The Phoenix

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Just days ago, I announced the retirement of the community blog I have been authoring for five years. That blog, McMurray Musings, was about the community and city I call home, and the one that holds my heart: Fort McMurray, Alberta. I write this today in a sort of stunned numbness, as when I started this new blog I never imagined the first real post would be the one I am typing now. I hope you will forgive any errors or mistakes – everything from the last two days in my world has been clouded by a veil of tears.

On Tuesday, May 3, I awoke to a bright and sunny day in Fort McMurray. There was a bit of smell of smoke in the air, but the clouds of smoke from the fire I knew was burning not too far from us had disappeared over night. It was a normal morning – I refilled the dog’s water bowl, I ruffled the fur on all the cats affectionately, and I got dressed and went to work. All was calm.

On Wednesday, May 4, I woke up in a hotel in Edmonton after 3 hours of sleep. Two cats were meowing, indignant at being kept in the bathroom. The third cat was in a large dog kennel, along with a litterbox and a blanket. The dog was on her leash and tied to the bed in which I slept, to keep her close and lessen her anxiety.

I was now an evacuee.

In a short 24 hours, my entire world tilted on its axis, dumping me and almost everyone I know and love upside down. The morning of May 3 was relatively uneventful, and the news conference the city held at 11am gave no indication of cause for alarm. In the early afternoon I noted the clouds of smoke rolling in, but given the assurances that it was normal to see more smoke in the afternoon than in the morning I refused to panic.

Instead I tried to keep colleagues calm, sharing the information I had in the best ways I could. The clouds of smoke began to look more ominous, and reports began to come in of people seeing flames. I scanned all our social media feeds, both personal and professional, seeking out any additional details or information.

And then the evacuation notices began. In disbelief I realized my neighbourhood, the place where my little house and my little fur family where, had been deemed a voluntary evacuation zone. Sources told me it would almost certainly become mandatory, and so I drove home as quickly as I could and began to pack.

I will not lie. Hard decisions were made in the few minutes I had to prepare. The cats, their food, a litterbox. The dog, her leash, her food, a blanket. A couple of pairs of jeans, some shirts, some socks, some underwear. The title to my house, my insurance documents, my passport. Laptop and charger, ipad and cell phone.

All hastily packed into my vehicle, ready to go. Except there was what I had to leave behind. It is my fault I was unprepared. I had no safe way to transport my caged pets, the hedgehog and the ferrets, and their cages were too large to fit.I was running out of time. I stuffed as much food and water in with them as I could, petted them and left them behind, hoping to return quickly to collect them.

I would not return to my house that day. And I have not been back since.

I went back to my office, as I happen to work in the place that serves as the evacuation centre during these emergencies. My thought was that the creatures and I would ride it out in my office, like some bizarre sort of holiday camp out but at work. When I got a minute I would head home and figure out some way to grab the caged pets, and we would all be reunited. Friends helped my unload the gang, and into my office they went, puzzled and anxious and confused. But I thought I would have time to sort all that out soon, as surely things would take a turn for the better. I was wrong.

I failed to anticipate the apocalypse.

Instead things seemed to be getting worse, and rather rapidly. More areas under evacuation notices, and then, on social media, the posts from friends began to roll in.

Friends trapped in their car, seeing flames around them, stuck in gridlock as they tried to escape and pleading for help. Photos of flames licking at trees. Photos of fire leaping into the sky. Panic. Devastation. Shock.

And it was just the beginning.

I was trying to do so many things; my job, stay in touch with friends, share the information I had, figure out how I was going to get home again. I was on the verge of tears, trying to hold it together professionally while falling apart personally, because my city – the home of my heart – was in flames.

There was a moment I will never forget. I was outside, with a clear view of thick smoke and flames across the river from me. I realized that there was a chance I may not survive. This could actually be my last day on the planet.

So I called my daughter in Calgary, I told her about the fire, and I told her that I love her more than anything in the world. Tears poured down my face, and I felt the world drop away beneath me as my mouth spoke the kind of words I never thought I would need to speak. I told her the things I needed her to know. And when I said goodbye, I didn’t know if it would be for the final time.

Perhaps it sounds melodramatic, like a movie. Perhaps that is fitting, though, as the rest of that day was more like some sort of Hollywood fiction than any sort of reality. A frantic phone call to my ex-husband, telling him to take care of our daughter. Texts to friends telling them to evacuate, as the situation was clearly becoming more dire.

And then a mandatory evacuation notice for my entire city. For my entire heart.

Back into the car went the cats and the dogs and all the stuff. Travel north or travel south? Information was spotty and contradictory. But as I looked north all I saw was a long line of immobile cars, and south was clear. North I might be able to stop at my house, but reports said I wouldn’t be allowed into my area. And all those cars – what would happen if the fire reached them? We could be trapped.And ringing in my ears were my daughter’s words to me: just get out.

With a broken and heavy heart, I flicked my left turn signal, and headed south.

I don’t know how to describe what I saw as I drove away from the place that has been my home for fifteen years. I am a fan of “The Walking Dead”, and all the abandoned cars, out of gas or broken down, reminded me of the scenes of the early days of that fictional zombie apocalypse. But instead of zombies I saw flames, burning in the hills to the right of me. Grass burning to the left. Thick smoke and ashes blanketing my car. People trying so hard not to panic, but clearly in terrible and absolute fear. And they had good reason to be, because it was terrifying.

I drove past buildings in flames, places I have eaten at and places I knew well.I was in a state of disbelief, stunned by what I was witnessing. This could not be happening. And yet it was.

I have no photos of May 3. There are no quick-snapped shots of flames and fires, of smoke and dark skies. I don’t need the photos as those images are burned into my mind, crystal clear in their clarity.

My city was burning down, and I was watching it happen.

Once past city limits the smoke cleared, and it was again a bright and sunny day. The traffic was bumper to bumper, but we were moving, if slowly. A long winding caravan of people, all leaving our homes and our community behind us.

All watching it burn in our rear view mirrors.

The drive to Edmonton is a blur. The phone calls to family to say I had evacuated, the ones to friends to check on them as they headed south or north – and the one to my daughter, in which I heard a tone in her voice I have never heard before. It makes me cry even now.

A trip that normally takes 4 and a half hours took over 8. There was the stop for gas at a place that had none, and the fear that I would run out before reaching the next town. And then the relief when I reached it, and they had gas. Listening to satellite radio all the way down, hearing The Cult’s “Fire Woman” and not knowing whether to laugh or cry. The constant string of unhappy meows, the whining of the dog, the guilt at leaving some of the fur family behind.

It was a nightmare, but the trouble is that I still haven’t woken up from it, which means it might be real.

We reached Edmonton in the early morning and tucked ourselves into our hotel room. It wasn’t until I was at Petsmart later that day and they told me that they had a discount for fire evacuees from Fort McMurray that I cried again, at least not since the phone call with my daughter while standing in a field and watching my city burn. But there, in Petsmart, I realized how traumatized I was, and how fragile I am.

How fragile we all are. I am in constant contact with friends, sharing our stories of our escapes. We are all like shell-shocked and numb survivors of some mass catastrophe, except we aren’t like that. We are that. We are the centre of a global news story of an epic disaster, one that would go down in history.

How unexpected for what seemed to start as such an ordinary day.

Some day I will laugh at some of this, like how apparently it made sense to pack a bunch of sheer gauze shirts but forget to pack a single tank top, meaning I made the trip to Petsmart wearing a pyjama top and hoping nobody would notice. Some day I will think more about the things I didn’t take, like how despite my renowned love of shoes I now have with me one pair of Capezio ballet flats and one pair of Keds. Shoes? They were the very last of my considerations, and didn’t even make the cut in things to take along for the ride. How very unexpected.

Some day I will think more about the new perspective I have gained, as after a phone call made from a field I will never again take being alive for granted. I am so profoundly grateful to have survived at all, and while I don’t know if I have a house to return to I know I will have a home – because my home is Fort McMurray, and all the people I love, the ones who also survived but so many of whom have lost so very much.

The acts of kindness I have seen and with which I have been gifted are astonishing. From the person dashing out of his truck on the congested highway to distribute bottles of water to other evacuees to the offers of assistance of every kind, I am beyond grateful. I am at a loss for words to express what this means to me and the tens of thousands of others.

Recovery will take time, both for our community and all of us, and the battle with the fire rages on. When we are allowed to return it will be coming back to a very different place, and I know, in my heart of hearts, it will never be the same, and that hurts in a way I cannot describe. But even as it changes, I know there will be many of us who will be there to forge that new path and to rebuild.

Last night during yet another fitful sleep, I dreamed about the phoenix. It is not hard to see why this mythical creature would come to me now, as my city lies in ashes and forever changed. This morning I woke up and began writing down next steps – for myself, for my job, and for my community as we, like the phoenix, prepare to rise from the ashes and be reborn. I will be writing about this experience for the rest of my life, because it has forever changed me. My entire perspective has shifted, and what is of true value became very clear in a very short period of time. We get caught up in so much “stuff” and sometimes we forget what is really important: each other. I will never, ever forget it again.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for your kind words and acts, for your support and your love and your generosity towards my community. Thank you for being there for us. Just know we would do the same for you, because that’s who we are, too. We are proud, and we are strong, and we are Fort McMurray. And when it is possible, we will go home, and we will rebuild what we have lost, because what we lost were buildings. What we still have is each other. Like the phoenix, we will rise again. And we will be stronger than ever before.


A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.