Heather & Chris: A Fort McMurray Love Story
When Heather Barrett (then Heather Warren) woke up on the morning of May 3, 2016, she was relieved to see the smoke had cleared. It appeared that the wildfires that had been encroaching on Fort McMurray were under control, and Heather, after a restless sleep spent thinking about her impending laser eye surgery that morning, felt relieved. Little did Heather, her then-fiancé Chris or anyone else recognize that the seemingly calm morning would turn into an unprecedented event in Canadian history, and she could have certainly never predicted the direct impact it would have on her life.
Just as with the other residents of the region, Heather and Chris began that morning with the usual expectations for the day. Chris, who was going golfing with some friends, had left Heather in the care of her mother, father and brother who were visiting from Newfoundland. Heather and Chris had been in Fort McMurray for a few years, having purchased a house in the new suburb of Stone Creek. While Chris golfed, Heather headed to her laser eye surgery appointment. As the first surgery of the day, she was in and out quickly, and her parents took her home to begin her recovery, which was to include bed rest, eye drops on a frequent basis, staying out of the sunlight and refraining from using her cell phone in order to allow her eyes the chance to heal.
When Heather and her parents and brother returned to the house in Stone Creek after stopping for an early lunch, the sky over Fort McMurray had begun to change. The formerly bright and sunny morning had given way to darker skies, and Heather’s parents, who had just returned from a trip to the grocery store, commented that there was now smoke in the air. Heather, who at this point had been visiting with her brother, turned on the radio and tuned to a local radio station. Suddenly the gravity of the situation became clear, as the radio was reporting a mandatory evacuation in Abasand.
Chris called Heather from the golf course and told her he was headed to Abasand to help a friend pack some of their things in order to evacuate. Chris, normally a quiet and reserved individual, told Heather to get her parents to fill their truck with fuel. Heather’s father, who had already begun to quietly pack some items, fuelled up the truck, and in the meantime, Heather and her mother began to make phone calls inviting friends and relatives to come to Stone Creek for supper and to take shelter in an area that seemed safe from the flames. Friends and family began to gather at their home, and Chris, finally making his way through traffic, arrived just as the voluntary evacuation was called for Timberlea.
“I saw a side of my future husband I had never seen before,” says Heather. “He took charge of an entire group, telling everyone it was time to pack and leave.”
As they began to frantically pack, plans were made to head south if possible and north if given no option. As they piled into a caravan of vehicles, they realized their decision was made when it was clear they would not be given the choice to head south, and so they travelled north towards the Suncor site.
“We stopped for a bit on the median,” says Heather. “We knew we wanted to head south as north didn’t make sense to us, so when it seemed possible to get through we turned around and headed south and back through town.”
It was a nightmarish journey, made even worse by the fact that Heather’s eyes, still recovering from surgery that morning, made everything more challenging. They drove through the burning city, seeing familiar landmarks in flames, and realizing the severity of the fire. Once through Fort McMurray they headed as a group to Wandering River for the night, where they stayed with friends in a campground, and then headed to Edmonton the following morning.
“The kindness of people during that trip was amazing,” says Heather. “At every stop, people were offering food, water, fuel…it made me begin to realize what was happening.”
The kindness didn’t stop once they reached Edmonton. Heather, who needed a 24-hour post-operative check on her eyes, was amazed at the generosity of the people at the Lasik MD clinic she visited, and the technician who offered them her home in which to stay. In fact, throughout the day on May 4, the kindness continued, and it was not until late that night, when Heather’s cell phone began to blink with messages, that Heather and Chris understood that the neighbourhood they thought was safe might be in peril.
“It was a message from a friend and former neighbour,” says Heather. “Houses on Prospect Drive were on fire, but when we checked our security system all seemed fine. Chris told me I needed to get some sleep, so I tried to sleep that night. Chris told me that whatever happens, happens, but it was hard to sleep not knowing.”
The next morning, a video posted of the Stone Creek area showed a scene of devastation, and while they tried to identify their house they could not be certain it had been impacted by the fire. It appeared their house might have burned, but they could not be certain.
It was on May 5 during lunch, while seated at a Moxie’s restaurant in Edmonton, that Chris and Heather received confirmation that their house was gone.
Heather, who is incredibly calm while telling the story, begins to break into tears at this point in the tale. “That’s when it hit me. The house was gone, all the things I forgot to pack – I started to think about what we lost.”
The next minutes, hours and days were a whirlwind of phone calls to insurance companies, friends and families, and beginning to accept their loss.
“Through it all, Chris was a rock,” says Heather. After learning their home was lost, they set up temporary residence in Boyle with friends, living with them in their camper until purchasing their own to ride out the remainder of the summer. Chris, who returned to work, stopped only briefly in Stone Creek to see the remnants of their home, and Heather returned to Fort McMurray during the summer to visit the site, sift for what few items they could find, and attempt to find some closure.
“When we drove away, it was like a huge weight lifted off my chest,” she says. Heather and Chris, who had made peace with their loss, were ready to move on.
“We got married in October, 2016,” says Heather of the wedding that saw her marry her junior-high sweetheart and the man she had come to love more than she ever thought possible as they went through a life-altering experience together. And, on that plot of land in Stone Creek that they had never thought was in danger, they began to rebuild.
Heather, who has a flair for design, says: “I have been able to put my touch and taste into our new house. We went with a different layout, and it is coming along great.”
And then she says, with true happiness evident in her voice: “We should be home in mid-May.”
Just over one year after that fateful day that began so normally and ended in such uncertainty, Heather and Chris Barrett will return to Stone Creek and their home.
“2016 was the best and the worst of my life,” says Heather. “I discovered a greater love than I ever knew existed as I came to really know Chris, and I went through my lowest moments when I learned my home was gone.”
As Chris and Heather get ready to move to their new home, their story is a powerful reminder that the events in our lives have the possibility to make us or break us; as Heather says: “Every minute of happiness and sadness was making us stronger than ever; we built bonds with each other, our friends and our families that will never be broken. 2016 was the best and worst year of my life.”
And in May, 2017, Heather and Chris Barrett will finally see their story come full circle as they open the door at their house in Stone Creek and say: “We’re home.”
Photography by Brandon Cooper