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How It All Unfolded: The Story

When you evacuate almost 90,000 people from a community, there’s a story behind each of them.

We have gathered a timeline of events, walking through the days before and after the evacuation. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Greg Halinda has shared a photo essay to tell the story when there are no words left. There are stories from those who stepped up when we needed them the most, and stories from those who had to flee. We have stories from heroes, and stories thanking them.

These are the stories that make #FortMcMurrayStrong


Kintsugi: Beautifully Broken

Anthony Hoffman
BY Anthony Hoffman
(1 Vote)

I remember hearing Ronda Rousey say “There is no history of anything happening, until it does.  And then there is.” 

Stories of victory need conflict.  Tales of courage and strength require battles to happen.  It seems so easy to say these things, but who really wants to experience the conflict, the fighting and the hurt in order to see the happy ending? It’s still going to hurt.

How many would rather protect themselves to avoid the pain and discomfort?  Even at the cost of growth.  Sometimes you don’t get 

that choice.

Getting off from the night shift on May 3rd, I didn’t know that day would write Fort McMurray history; or hurl me into the discomfort of forced growth.

Shortly after 1 p.m. that day, I arrived at fire hall 1 on Tolen Drive.  Quickly changing into a uniform in my driver’s seat, I watched as a crew raised the bucket of our Bronto truck to start protecting the hall itself from fire, which was ripping through the forest a short stretch of pavement away.

I remember my first assignment: the hospital. Hot embers and smoke were blowing across the highway and the high occupancy building was a priority. A rushed scurry was initiated to evacuate it. I hopped into a pickup truck with a few other firefighters and raced to the hospital. We set up sprinklers around the building as nurses ran around, loading patients onto city buses. I climbed to the roof, opened one of the hallway standpipe systems, flaking out the hose and giving the end a quick tug to start the water flowing. I started soaking the roof with rushed determination as burning flakes rained from the sky.  When I first looked up, I nearly dropped the nozzle. 

My city was burning.

From the high roof of the hospital I had almost a supernatural view of the inferno.  Time seemed to slow down as sirens, helicopters whirring by and radio chatter all blurred together. Smoke billowed from Beacon Hill where my childhood home stood.  I knew the odds weren’t in favor of it lasting. Embers from Abasand sailed past my helmet as I stared. For all I knew these were pieces of my Abasand condo falling all around me.

I squeezed the hose line under my armpit and dug into my pocket.  Pulling out my cell phone I called my dad.  “Pops, I don’t know if you’re watching this on the news or not, but…I think the house is gone. I’m gonna be busy, I will call you when I can.  Love you.”

So started the longest week of my life.

Looking back, there seems such a sick irony of being a firefighter and losing both my family home and my condo in a fire. I’ve been trained to stop this. You find yourself bargaining in your mind, replaying scenarios of what could have been done. I guess there is almost peace in knowing there is nothing else that was humanly possible without getting people hurt. This thing really was a beast.

Driving through Fort McMurray after the fact, it’s tough to untangle all the emotions. For all the houses still standing, anywhere in the city, it’s hard not to feel a bit of pride, whether it was us or not, every one of them feels like a celebration. For all the houses that were lost, it’s hard not to feel a bit of responsibility. I know it’s not our fault and our crews gave everything, but my heart hurts for everyone who lost so much. I work with some of the best, and they fought for every home like it was their own.  For 17 of us, it really was.

I remember two days into that first week, there were rumors of houses still standing in Beacon Hill. I made the trip up as soon as I had a free minute to go, fingers crossed, to my childhood home. As I neared the plot of land that held so many memories, I thought I would cry, but it was so indistinguishable from the loving household I knew – it might as well have been someone else’s home.  I stepped out of my car, still in bunker gear, my boots leaving footprints in the ash that dusted my driveway. My footprints looked like those left by astronauts on the surface of the moon. Our home seemed just as foreign. 

Then it started to come back. This was where I set up my first lemonade stand. My first lessons on money. This driveway is where I fell off my bike, scraping my knee so many times trying to learn how to ride. The number of jump shots on that bent, melted basketball hoop has to be in the millions. That lawn I hated to mow, but taught me responsibility and stewardship had a few pieces of green grass left. The brick chimney still stood, and the fireplace sat charred at its base reminding me of the stockings hanging above it every Christmas. I learnt how to kiss under that tree in the backyard. How to pray in the living room. How to cook on that stove over there, now nothing but a warped shell.

As I looked at the pile of memories and possessions, that house had one last lesson to teach me.

People are all that matter. Your impact on them and theirs on you. The memories you build together and the effect you have on their lives. Nothing you own goes with you.  Just your legacy.

Family is powerful. Don’t ever neglect it. Cherish your family. Lead your family. That house watched my brothers, three of the best men I know, grow up. And that wasn’t an accident. It was through the selfless love, hard discipline, ruthless faith and dedication of two humble parents.

That lesson is forever engraved on the pages of my story. Does it mean I didn’t grieve? Absolutely not. Though my family is safe, and the home we built extends beyond those four walls, it still hurts to see. How do you find strength to move past an image like that?

I used to think strength was self-denial. Maybe getting up early for a run. Pushing through a workout, offering your excess to someone who has none. I thought strength was having your priorities in the right place. Working harder than the next guy. Maybe it still is.

I think though, the truest strength in this, is the ability to hope. The unabashed belief that good has, and will, come out of this. That things will actually be better as we move forward. The insurance will come through. Your relationships will be stronger. The jobs will be created. Everything you’re going through will be worth the frustrations. A deep belief that tragedy precedes success and beauty.

This fire also taught me the incredible importance of preparation. Mundane, repetitive practice. We train a lot at the fire hall. Sometimes to grumbling and complaining that we are practicing the same thing for the third time this month. We exercise; even when we would rather not. I couldn’t imagine if I hadn’t been in shape and ready on May 3rd. I’ve learnt going forward to try and always be ready for life; mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. No more short cuts because there might come a day when every ounce of who you are will be called upon for the fight of your life. The only thing that will decide the outcome is if you have trained for that fight.

I think everyone affected by this fire has two choices for how to allow it to affect them.  First, it can turn us bitter, affected and unfairly victimized. It is unfair. I don’t want to cheapen the reality of loss experienced by so many. But, if we keep this mentality, we will forever let this fire win. It will affect us, our family, our children, for a long, painful time. The second attitude is one of strength, and I know that it is the harder route. It’s also the most beautiful. Magnifying the resilience and tenacity capable in humanity. We choose to look forward with hope and fill our own glass of optimism. We embrace the scar tissue that is stronger than the previous layer of skin. I read once, “In the fire, gold is tested to prove its worth.”  Learning to honor the struggle takes character. Struggle will either destroy us or develop us, and the hardest of human truths is that ultimately it is our choice.