Memories in Ash
Tuesday, May 3rd started out like any other day. A computer glitch on the weekend had erased my YMM article, I was past my deadline, and we were going to print late Wednesday. I decided Monday night that I would lock myself in the house and re-write my article as best I could from memory. I had the windows and the patio open as it was unseasonably warm and I was enjoying the heat. I knew there was forest fire south of the city, but it hadn’t flared up yet and everything seemed normal.
It was around 12:45 p.m. that my mom called from Abasand and asked if I had heard if anything was going on. She had gone to take a shower to normal light in streaming into her house, but when she got out, it was dark enough to turn on the lights. I told her I would call back. I immediately got up from my desk and walked over to where I could see Abasand. My view is directly south and what I saw was more than scary.
My thoughts went to a conversation I had with my dad on Sunday evening while standing at the end of his driveway. We watched plumes of smoke in the distance and he asked me if I thought we should be scared. I said, “No, they would never let a fire get that close to the city. You will be fine.” That didn’t look so promising at this point. I called my dad and asked him to meet me at his house. I thought we should probably get the motorcycle out of the garage and brought down to my house just in case things took a turn. I grabbed my car keys and headed for Abasand.
When I got to the top of Abasand hill and was waiting to turn left, I noticed the amount of people driving around taking pictures and video. It seemed like way more people than normal for Abasand. As I turned down Athabasca Crescent, my phone rang and it was my mother telling me there was a voluntary evacuation order. I told her I was on the street pulling up. As I got out of my car my mother met me in the driveway. It was an eerie scene as all the neighbours were standing in their driveways, looking south watching a wall of flames and smoke coming towards us. My mother hadn’t finished asking me what she should pack when one of the neighbours shouted that it was now a mandatory evacuation. I told my mom to run inside and pack.
My father pulled up moments later and we got to work loading the motorcycle into an enclosed trailer. At times the wind blew fiercely; we had to cover our faces as the heat and ash in the wind was extra hot and taking our breath away. It was if a giant dragon was inhaling and blowing fire at us. The Beast was breathing…it’s the only way to describe it.
Cars were now backing up on the street as people were leaving Abasand. I ran into the house, yelled for my mother to tell me where family photo albums were. We grabbed paintings off the wall, a couple of bins of keepsakes, photo albums, and made our way to the cars. The fire was now burning at the end of the street. The RCMP were driving around, officers were on foot running into greenbelt homes frantically trying to save anyone that might be inside. Behind them, walls of flames were now consuming the homes. In the distance, you could see Wild Wood Estates on fire. We knew it wasn’t good. Fear started to set in for my mother, as she said we needed to get out of here, but the streets were blocked. Next to my parents’ house is a park and pathway that brings you to the next street, the direction that the police were going. I ran through the park and towards the direction of the police. They saw me waving my arms and came over to ask what was wrong. Out of breath, I told them about the emergency access road at the end of Abbottswood Drive. They needed to cut the chains or crash through it if they had to.
It was built for a fire in 1981. Growing up it had been a great sliding hill in winter, a bike trail in summer. The police immediately radioed for someone to get the road open. I ran back to my parents’ house where my parents were ready to leave. There was one problem; there were three of us and four vehicles. We had to say goodbye to a beautiful convertible Mercedes that had been in the family for years. I reasoned that if I parked it out in the street farthest from any burning buildings it would stand the best chance. I parked it, looked back at the house one last time, and left. We didn’t wait in the long lines of traffic to get out. We snaked around the neighbourhood and left through the now bike trail. I’m not sure we realized just how bad things were until we got to the bottom of Abasand. We could now see Beacon Hill and homes in Grayling Terrace on fire – traffic was at a standstill.
For the next two hours, we made our way through downtown to my condo near the Snye. I can’t even begin to tell you how many phone calls and texts were coming in from all over, local friends, and then people from the rest of Canada and the United States. Everyone seemed to be keeping in contact with everyone; there was an enormous sense of community. Upon arriving at my house we were met with the news that the whole city was now under evacuation and we had to go north. Now, this is just mine and my family’s decision, but there was no way we were going north. I’ve lived in Fort McMurray and I know what’s north: a dead end.
From my patio downtown, we could see the path the fire was taking. We were already getting reports that camps were filling up and the highways were blocked with traffic and not moving. My father, knowing the region quite well, assured us we were safe. I packed a suitcase while we waited. I moved artwork from my house to my car that was now in a closed concrete underground garage. We had the garage sealed for fire two years ago so I reasoned that if the building burned, my car would be ok. Now that the severity of the situation was what it was, we decided to leave town in one car. If we were going to die, we were going to die together. At 8:30 p.m. I could see traffic heading south on the downtown bypass, and knew it was time to leave. I said goodbye to my piano, took one last look at my home of nine years, and closed the door.
We left downtown by turning onto the highway near the Tim Horton’s. I was shocked that the RCMP officer pointed for me to turn south into the northbound lane. I actually had to double check with him, he reassured me that it was ok and we were off. As we headed towards the hospital street overpass, we were shocked by the homes on fire, the hills on fire – just fire, everywhere. We started our climb up Beacon Hill with burning hillside on both sides of the car. Embers bounced off the windows and hood. You could now look down through the burned trees and see Waterways. I remember gasping for air and saying, “Oh my god Waterways is gone; there’s nothing left.” It was at that point when it seemed like we were in some kind of movie – the camera would pan out, as sad orchestra music played.
Passing the Super 8 and Denny’s completely engulfed in flames along with the Centennial Campground completely gone made you realize you might not be going home. The drive that night was one of the strangest times I’ve ever seen Highway 63. People were calm, slower traffic kept right, it was absolutely textbook. Two friends reached out on the drive: Erin Clark offering her aunt’s place in Athabasca, and Andrea and Jason Plamondon offering their fifth wheel camper in Plamondon. We took the camper; it was our united way of staying together through this ordeal.
On Wednesday, May 4th, lives changed forever. Waking up that morning my eyes opened quickly as though I’d had a bad dream. I looked around the room to make sure I was home. I wasn’t. I was in a camper. I knew it was real. I messaged friends of mine that stayed behind fighting the fire and learned that the old side of Abasand or as I like to call it, the original side, had been levelled. Devastated I told my mom first, she was prepared for it, maybe shocked, who knows. We then called my dad into the camper to tell him. Something happens to a son when he sees his dad sobbing for the home he just lost. It does even more to you knowing your mom and dad can’t go home. I don’t know where my protector mode came from, but I shut myself off and everything became about them. We stayed in Plamondon for three days, then on to Edmonton for three days with my cousin Kim. I convinced my mom and dad to fly to Florida where they have a condo, I reasoned it was a home, they had clothes there, and early accounts from friends who were elected officials, I knew it could be months before we would be allowed back.
I moved to Abasand in 1986, fresh from Newfoundland. My mom and dad loved it up there. There were tons of kids; the area wasn’t too big that you could get lost. The Hangingstone apartments (now Wildwood Estates) had a pool, and you could sign your friends in that lived in the patio homes. There were sliding hills in winter. Dickie Dee Ice Cream bikes going up and down the streets with bells ringing and kids screaming in summer. Of course, there was the odd night shift worker screaming out the window to stop the bells. There was also a corner store with the best cream filled doughnuts and Orange Crush Slurpees that any kid could ever want. The Father Beau versus Frank Spragins snowball fights were epic. Abasand was heaven. So you can imagine my heart when I realized five of my childhood addresses disappeared. 614-201, 836-201 and 133-201 Abasand Drive probably burned first, then 141 Amberwood Court and my parent’s current home for over 20 years on Athabasca Crescent.
When the day came when we were allowed to go back, I prepared myself by driving through Stonecreek. I’ve never seen anything like it. I was on the phone with a friend as I was driving and I was in absolute shock. Going back to Abasand was no different. Seeing your entire childhood neighbourhood completely gone changes a person in an indescribable way.
As we drove towards our street, I couldn’t help but think of all the names of those who lived behind every door. The Smiths, The Wooleys, The Boones, The Swires, The Muses, The Doyles, The Lees, The Menchentons, The Delusongs, The Husains, The Bridges,The Figiels, The Murphys, The Parsons, The Brennans. It didn’t matter that some of those families didn’t live there anymore. Their history was there, and now it’s gone – just memories in ash.
One of the things which has kept the sadness at bay though this whole experience: the overwhelming generosity shown to each other, and with each other. The people of Plamondon went above and beyond supplying food and water. Lac La Biche came together like no other. The stores in Edmonton giving away free clothes or drastic below-cost prices. People opening their homes to complete strangers. Strangers picking up strangers and then staying together through the whole evacuation. Let’s not forget the firemen like Damian Asher, who battled flames for days on end. Police officers like Dave and Nick Starr who got everyone out safely, and Phoenix Heli-flight for the rescues. One of the greatest things to come out of all of this is the stories. Everyone has one. “Where did you end up?” is a common question. “How did your house fair?” has become another. No matter the answer, people are there for you. While all the shock and pain has been like nothing most of us will see again in our lifetime, the reminder of the human spirit will live on forever. We will rebuild and we will be stronger has become the motto out of all of this, but it’s actually very true. You very quickly learn you can’t live in the past; you can only deal with today. Knowing that we’ve already seen the absolute worst in our lives, it can only get better.
From myself and my family, welcome home. And if it’s not quite home yet, I promise it will be again.