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Middle Age Bulge - Together We Will Continue the Long Road to Recovery

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I could not have predicted my reaction to coming back home to Fort McMurray after four weeks of being evacuated.  All of my attention was on opening the door to our downtown house and seeing the state of things.  I couldn’t think beyond that, as I felt I needed to be mentally prepared for any outcome. 

We were so fortunate, largely thanks to the way the fire behaved and the split second decisions and actions that Heather took before she evacuated with Dylan and Ben.  Three months after the event, I keep learning of the little things she did in those crazy minutes, from shutting off lights and computers to closing all the windows and shutting off the furnace. 

We did the requisite cleaning of the house when we got back, but that wasn’t enough for either of us.  Our “rebuild” ended up being more of a “reset” as we dived into a number of different projects.  Heather focused inside, while I turned my attention to the yard.

Cutting grass felt like an absolute priority on the first day back.  I can’t explain it, except to say that seeing those cohesive cut lines on our lawn, the neighbour’s lawn, and the lawns down the street, just felt like the best use of my time.

The boys and I were home on a very windy day during the early days of June when we heard a huge CRAAACCK sound coming from the backyard.  One of the giant limbs of our Manitoba maple on the northwest corner of the lot had crashed down, making a perfect landing in the back alley.  Miraculously, there was absolutely no damage.  Again, it felt like we had dodged a bullet. 

We hired a contractor to take care of of the fallen limb and hired him to take down some additional trees and branches that were safety risks.  I remember feeling intense anxiety looking at the trees hanging over the house.  For 20 years, I never gave the trees a passing thought that they could come crashing down and wreak havoc on our lives.  The fire made me feel a lot more vulnerable.

Heather felt inspired, perhaps driven, to make a significant shift in our living spaces, and embarked on a major painting project.  She also sorted, culled, and dived into projects that helped demarcate our pre- and post-fire lives.

A recovery gift from a distant relative allowed us to replace an aging sofa set.  We decided to offer up our well-loved leather sofas to a family in need.  They were claimed and picked up within a half-hour.  I’m so glad they will have a second life rather than going to the landfill.

While we worked hard to spruce things up throughout the summer, we recognized how fortunate we were to have a home.  So many others had homes that had been reduced to ashes or homes and neighbourhoods that were still deemed unsafe.  Any conversation or media interview about our situation always included an acknowledgement that things were far from normal for so many other families.

Our “rebuild” has largely been cosmetic and psychological.  We have done our best to rebalance our lives over the summer.  We dove back into work as soon we were able. Heather started back into doing cranio-sacral therapy and yoga while I continued my journey with United Way and painting.  Dylan returned to his summer gig at The Redpoll Centre and Ben dived into DramaForce and preparing for a production of The Jungle Book. 

Getting back into a routine helped us normalize, and begin healing from the trauma we experienced along with our 90,000 friends and neighbours.  We have lots of good days, but there are some bad ones, too. 

On the days when it feels overwhelming, I retreat to the studio, put on some Jazz music, pull out a blank canvas and start painting.  Heather meditates or does yoga, Ben plays video games, and Dylan goes hunting in the neighbourhood for Pokemons.

The days are getting shorter, and soon summer will give way to autumn.  Our reset will continue into the winter as our friends and neighbours in the devastated neighbours focus on their rebuilds.  Together we will continue on the long road to recovery. 


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.