End Stages

They say there are five stages of grief. Having gone through grief I’m not entirely sure I agree, as “stages” make it sound like there is some pattern to it that is true for everyone, and yet I think it is as unique as each of us. And yet there seems to be some kernel of truth to it too, as anyone witnessing the last month and the displaced residents of Fort McMurray can likely attest.

I know I have gone through some fairly distinctive stages, although there has been some overlap, too.

Denial would be when I refused to believe my own eyes. Hey, those weren’t flames across the Snye. Naw, that was an optical illusion. And hey, those billowing clouds of black smoke didn’t signify things had gone horribly wrong. No way. My city couldn’t burn, right?

Um, wrong. So very, very wrong. I was in denial until I saw the pleas from friends trapped in gridlock trying to escape the fire and watching houses burn down beside them. And then, when I watched a tree explode – not catch fire, but literally explode in a way I had no idea trees could explode – denial was over.

Shock hit me as I was in my trusty SUV, loaded with cats and a dog and litter boxes and enough clothing for a couple of nights (see? Denial helped me pack, too). Watching things burn beside me and in front of me, shock sat in the passenger seat as I drove. Shock was likely in my voice as I did an interview with a radio station in New Zealand as I drove south, agreeing to it really because I needed to hear human voices to keep moving forward.

Shock lasted for a few days. It was there in the hotel room, and with me in the lobby when I appeared there, disheveled and in my pyjamas, at 3 in the afternoon on the second day after the evacuation. I needed a new room key. I needed something from their little concession. I needed shock to fuck off, because it had pulled me to a standstill.

Shock finally left when I reunited with my daughter in Calgary and we spent the weekend together. Slowly, she healed me, her voice and her laugh and her love and her encouragement to buy pretty shoes pulling me out of my tail spin. She helped me move into the next phase: acceptance.

I had no control. Now this was almost worse than shock. I like being in charge of my life, probably too much so. But the fire had wrestled that away. I couldn’t go home, even when that was the only thing I wanted. Whether my house was ok was out of my hands. In fact the only thing I could control was me – and so, cautiously at first, I began to take little steps towards that goal. Making plans but understanding they may need to change. Accepting that I could only control limited aspects of this experience – and allowing myself to simply feel the ones I couldn’t.

There was a very brief bout of anger, too. Fuck you, wildfire. Who do you think you are, destroying the homes of people I love? Fuck you, national magazine. Remember all the shitty stories you published about my home town and all the times you rejected my offers of a viewpoint from a local? Fuck you and your glossy coverage of our tragedy, like you actually give a damn when all we are to you is the latest sob story you use to sell your crappy magazine.

The anger burned out quicker than the wildfire, though. It was pointless. Sound and fury signifying nothing, it was snuffed out almost as quickly as it was lit. My anger would change nothing, and it burned no one but me.

And, finally, optimism. Real optimism, the kind that wells up from within. Not the kind of bravado you put on for others, but the one you feel right in your chest, squeezing you so tight it hurts a bit. And with it came laughter, like the moment when I realized the already iffy bag of potatoes in my cupboard was likely to have grown legs and meet me at the front door by the time I came home, strutting it’s bad potato stuff around my house. Like when I began to rue the vow I made May 2 to clean the already over-ripe litter boxes and animal cages on May 3. On the upside the evacuation meant I didn’t have to spend that Tuesday night cleaning cat poo, but then again the prospect of month old cat poo was even scarier.

And as I moved through the stages I learned so much about myself. I am, in many ways, a bit reserved. It’s very likely I open myself up far more through my written work than I ever do in person, finding that intimate vulnerability very difficult. I don’t know my neighbours all that well, and while I have friends and a busy life I spend most of my time alone, by choice. At least, that was my choice.

Things have changed.

I have changed.

Nobody can live through this experience and remain the same. At least that’s what I believe, but again I think we can control how it changes us. When I go home I intend to meet my neighbours. The ones with the baby? I think I’ll offer to babysit. After all, I’ve raised a child and she turned out pretty okay, so I think I can be trusted with one for an hour or two. The young ones next door? Those late parties won’t bother me anymore. I’m glad they are enjoying being young. The sound of their laughter will be something I welcome, even at 3am.

And then there’s the dog across the street. A little black and white scruffy thing, some mix of Chihuahua and terrier and God-knows-what-else. Well, little Taco has been known to stand right in front of my car when I drive down the street and bark, while I roll down my window and shout “Taco, get out of the road!”.

But you see in the cup holder of my SUV is a dog treat. I got it during the shock phase when I went through a Starbucks drive through and they gave me two treats. I gave one to my dog, but I told her that the other is for Taco.

So when I drive up next time and Taco is standing in the street I am going to stop my car (and I’m very sorry if you are behind me, but you’ll just have to wait), and I’m going to ruffle his fur, and I’m going to give Taco a dog cookie. And then I’ll guide him onto his lawn to eat it so I can go home.

Yes, home. Home for me and for Taco and for my neighbours with the baby and for my rather boisterous young neighbours and my entire neighbourhood and my city. Beginning next week, we will start going home, none of us knowing exactly what we will find but I know one thing everyone who encounters me will find.

Open arms. A hug that comes from a lifetime of experience that was compressed into one terrible, horrible, incredible, amazing and life-altering month. And maybe that’s the final stage for me; the point where I embrace the changes and decide to allow them to guide me for the rest of my life. To become the kind of person who goes out of her way to meet her neighbours, who organizes block parties, who lives life with genuine passion and love and honesty and vulnerability and truth. Very simply, to be a better person returning home than when I left it that terrible night, and to never forget what I have learned.

A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh and his gang, may have expressed it best. Piglet says to Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

And so we are. So we ALL are, Fort McMurray. I promise I’ll always remember.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Three weeks.

It’s astonishing that it’s only been 21 days – a mere 3 weeks – since over 90,000 people fled the raging wildfire now often referred to as “The Beast”. Somehow time has lost all relevance as lives were dumped upside down and as ashes replaced trees and homes. And yet every Tuesday I somehow remember the day and pause to reflect on the days that have passed since we were driven from our homes.

I refuse to call the wildfire by a name, incidentally. For whatever reason I feel it should be better left as it-who-shall-not-be-named, a malovolent force not deserving a nickname or moniker. It is, to me, just the fire.

And yet it is not “just” anything. It has altered the course of lives for tens of thousands, and it has written a new chapter in the history of our country. It has tested the strength and resiliency of every single person it has touched.

Ring a ring of rosies

A pocket full of posies

Ashes ashes

We all fall down.

That childhood rhyme, sung during games and playtime, is said to have its origins in the time of the Black Death, the great plague that swept Europe and killed millions indiscriminately. This past week the final two lines have played in my head as I began to see the long term effects this traumatic fire has had on those it touched with its flames.

Have you had your falling down moment yet?

The one where you felt the wind knocked out of you, where you could feel the world falling away and where you felt reduced to ashes, just like so many of the beautiful trees that surrounded our community?

I have. 

More than once.

Seeing the photos of the homes of friends, reduced to rubble.

The person in the shop who meant well, but who didn’t seem to understand that asking if my house burned down was a perilous road to travel, whether or not the answer was no or yes.

Seeing the photos of fire fighters who fought so valiantly to save our community, and knowing they risked their lives – and some lost their homes – saving ours.

The phone call from a friend telling me of the tragic accident during the evacuation that stole the lives of two young adults. I had recently met the parents of one.

We all fall down.

I have cried more in the last three weeks than perhaps in my entire life. I have cried until I could not produce another tear, my body simply saying “we have no more water to give to this pursuit”. 

I have, like tens of thousands of others, been glued to social media – and yet I have not turned on the tv once. I could not see my community – my home – reduced to a one-minute news story, when to me, right now, it’s the only story.

It’s the story of every beat of my heart. It’s as all consuming as the fire itself, burning up those weeks and days until it runs out of fuel and has nothing left to burn. And I know it’s approaching that point, when the fire snuffs itself out, as I’ve moved into the next phase.

Getting ready to return.

Cases of water. A new cooler. Supplies of food. Batteries. A flashlight.

And a steely determination to rebuild my community.

We all fall down. 

And then we get up.

Ashes. Ashes will be everywhere, I expect that. We will sweep them up, hose them down, truck them away for disposal. 

We will mourn our losses, feel the sting of homes lost and memories forever altered. We will celebrate our heroes, far too many to name without missing some but each and every one in our hearts forever. 

We will clean up the ashes. And then we will move on.

Those who survived the Black Death went on to rebuild their lives and their communities. There are historians who believe the Black Death gave rise to the Renaissance, a period of rebirth and enlightenment. From the ashes came new life, just as we will see when the first green shoots appear in the middle of blackened fields. 

We have lost so much. But we have been tested and we have found something, too. We have found our courage and our strength.

Life has meaning because of contrast. We only know the light because we have seen the dark. We treasure good because we have seen evil. 

We know we can stand up again because we have fallen down. 

Ashes, ashes

In a few more days we will return to Fort McMurray, and sweep away the ashes. When we fall down, we will lift each other up. We will stand.

United. Undivided. Resolute. Determined.

Because there are things flames can burn, but there are things they cannot touch. And in the last three weeks, we found those things as they rose from the ashes to stand again. Just as we have.

Three weeks ago I wrote that Fort McMurray is the Phoenix. I was wrong. Fort McMurray isn’t the Phoenix.

We are. And we are rising.

Life, Interrupted

Two weeks. 14 days.

It is almost inconceivable that two weeks ago – just 14 days – I drove away from my city as part of the largest mass evacuation in Canadian history. It seems like it was so much longer ago, as the days and nights have run into a blur. And yet if I was asked what I have done in those two weeks it would be difficult to provide a synopsis, as my memory of events gets quite shaky after 6:30 pm on May 3, when I drove through a city in flames.

This is my life, interrupted.

I am, for the most part, a very driven and focused individual. I am the kind of person who gives their all to their job, working late hours, long nights, weekends and holidays  – not because it is required of me, but because I love what I do. I am much the same in my personal life, pursuing the things which interest me with a sort of dogged determination. It has never occurred to me that this could be a liability when life takes a turn for the unexpected and the typical flow of my days suddenly, and without warning, just stops.

And it isn’t just my life that has been interrupted, but that of tens of thousands of others who fled Fort McMurray. We are all in the same boat, each of us feeling adrift to some degree and yet sharing a common experience. We are all in this boat, patching the leaks, bailing when the ocean of tears threatens to overwhelm us, and occasionally pulling each other back into the boat when it looks like one of us is about to head overboard.

It is in each other, and the kindness of those from across the nation, that we find our life preserver.

There are things I have come to treasure in the past two weeks:

  • the unexpected and random acts and words of kindness from strangers
  • the support from organizations and corporations that retain compassion along with their mandates and corporate values
  • the simple pleasure of three cats who purr when I am with them and who have adjusted better than their human companion
  • the ex-husband and his family who were willing to take on the family dog when it became clear hotel life was not for a senior citizen canine
  • the SPCA who rescued two ferrets and a hedgehog, who are now in the care of foster parents and who seem remarkably unaffected by the entire experience
  • the remarkable comfort in finding common ground despite differences
  • finding safe places to land, like hotels that tolerate the cats and respect the “do not disturb” sign on the door
  • the people who run towards a fire to save lives and houses when others are running away (my gratitude for them brings too many tears at this point, and needs a separate post to acknowledge fully)
  • and most of all, the love and pure presence of family and friends.

There are things I have come to despise in the past two weeks:

  • the way rumours find fuel on social media and feed on fear and worry to grow in size to rival an out of control wildfire
  • the way time seems to lose relevance and days of the week become a guess instead of a certainty
  • finding the worries of two weeks ago, like my house burning down, replaced with new worries, like my house blowing up
  • knowing the people I love are scattered around the country, suspecting each and every one of them is facing the same struggles, and not being able to be there for them in person, relying instead on phone calls and text messages
  • that moment at 4 am when I wake up and wonder if maybe, just maybe, this is actually some long extended dream sequence, like some bad television melodrama.

There are things I have come to find uncomfortable:

  • sudden sharp noises, like the slam of a gate that made me panic and threw me into almost instantaneous and inexplicable tears
  • anything that looks vaguely like smoke, even just dust blowing in the wind
  • the smell of smoke, which likely means campfires are out of my future for some time
  • signs that contain words like “in case of fire” and accompanied by an image of flames, which now seem far more worrisome than they ever did before.

And there are the things for which I am, quite simply, grateful:

  • well, one thing, really – being here at all to tell the tale, and knowing that others made it out alive too.

I am in wonder of those who see this as a sort of unplanned vacation, an opportunity to reconnect, renew and refresh. It is a remarkable attitude, and one I wish I could embrace, but the truth is that is not who I am, and nor who I am ever likely to be. And that’s okay, because for me this is life, interrupted.

There is a great deal of uncertainty. When will the fire end? When will it be deemed safe for us to return? What will I do in the interim? Will I have somewhere to live? And what will I find when I return home?

I am not alone in these questions, and it is in that I find both comfort and sorrow. I wish others were not experiencing this, and yet at the same time I am bizarrely glad I am not alone in these feelings, either. And then there is the guilt for being glad others are experiencing this, too, as if I am some kind of sadist. It is all very wearying.

This is life, interrupted.

In all the uncertainty, I know a few things:

  • I know I have let go of so many things I carried, as if they were baggage tossed from my car window as I drove down a highway leaving the city I love behind; baggage like old resentments, anger and failed relationships. Those things are all now sitting in the ditches of Highway 63, and they are the only things I truly hope have been burned to ashes.
  • I know I love my friends and family with a ferocity I didn’t even recognize, and I know I have a capacity for forgiveness I did not think in my character.
  • I know I have a new-found well of compassion, which I was not lacking before but which has reached entirely new depths
  • and I know I will return home as soon as it is safe to do so, feeling right now like the pilot of a circling plane just waiting for clearance from air traffic control to finally land.

I don’t know what I will find when I return, and I realize that this life – life, interrupted – is likely to continue for some time. Maybe forever, as this has forever changed me and forever altered my world, and any normal I find now will be a new one, not the one I knew just over two weeks ago.

And it is in this acceptance that I find something else: hope. Life, interrupted, doesn’t need to be hopeless. It does not mean it will never be good again, just that it will very likely be different. And, as someone who over the course of her life has embraced the unusual, I have often found different to not only be okay, but, in the end, amazing.

This is life, interrupted – but this is also life, starting again.


A Sort of Homecoming

On May 3, 94,000 people fled the approaching flames in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Since that date, 94,000 people have been seeking not only safe refuge, but an elusive sense of home.

I am one of them.

After the devastating events of May 3 and subsequent days, I, along with tens of thousands of others, found my entire world up-ended. Every routine, every sense of normalcy, every vestige of life-as-it-was disappeared in plumes of smoke and waves of ashes. Every single thing in my world became uncertain, but perhaps none more so than the recognition that my city – my home – was facing a very uncertain future.

Initially, like many others, I evacuated to Edmonton, spending the first few days in shock. Those days are a blur to me, and there isn’t much I remember other than simply feeling hollow and numb. After three days I headed to Calgary and a reunion with my daughter, one filled with tears and both sorrow and joy as we waited for news on the city where my daughter grew up.

It was with both relief and guilt I learned my house is still standing. The place where I work, the heart of my community (and a place which is so integral to my experience of my city that I don’t have words to express it) also remains intact. But so many others have lost their homes, their places of work…it is hard to explain how it is to feel both happiness and sadness at the exact some moment. It has been an overwhelming mix of emotions, a virtual tsunami, and the one place  I usually go to process these feelings was denied to me.

I cannot go home.

And so I packed up three meowing cats (the family dog now with my ex-husband and my daughter, happy in their care and happier still to be away from hotel life). The cats and I hit the highway, and we aimed the car east, running back to Saskatoon.

There are exactly three places in this world I have truly considered home: Toronto, where I spent my young adult years, Fort McMurray, where I have spent the last 15 years, and Saskatoon, where I grew up. Toronto is too far away for a drive with the cats, and Fort McMurray is denied to me, so it made sense, somewhere in my head and heart, to make Saskatoon our destination.

What I didn’t realize is that I was seeking home.

Saskatoon has always been, and remains, a lovely city. I have family here, and it has been wonderful to reconnect with them, even under unfortunate circumstances. And while my head and my heart are slowly recovering from the trauma of driving away from a city in flames, I have been chasing the ghosts of memories in the city where I grew up.

I drove to the school from which I graduated, remembering all the jokes about reading the local newspaper Court Briefs to keep up with what some of my former classmates were up to, as my school was on the rougher end of town. I graduated so very long ago though that my memories of those years were faint and dim, coloured undoubtedly by all the years in between.

I drove to the elementary school I attended and poked at my feelings, trying to see if I felt any connection, but the memories there were even far more distant and removed.

And I drove to the house I grew up in, the ranch style home with the enormous pine tree in front where my parents lived for almost thirty years. I parked in front of it, longer than I should have most likely, and I remembered this house and the street. The neighbour across the way with the hair salon in her basement. The blue and white house down the street where the mean black dog had lived, the one who pulled kids like me off their bicycles. The house where my bullies lived, the kids who made my life hell for a couple of years before I resolutely went my own way, never caring what they said or thought again. The step in front of my house, where I spent so much time just sitting and playing and thinking. And even the giant rock one of the uncles brought from their farm for my parents, and the huge wooden wagon wheel, still there almost forty years later, kept by all the people who owned the house after my mother sold it.

And, finally, I went to visit my parents. I drove to see them as the sun was setting on a warm spring night, finding them at Woodlawn Cemetery, side by side in death as they had been in life.

It was there that I both broke down and rose up again.

When I decided to go to Saskatoon in the days after the fire I had not understood why I was going. I thought it was to see my sisters, to fill the time until I could go return to Fort McMurray – but in truth I needed to see my parents and to return to the city I once had considered home.

I sat on my parents gravestone and I told them so many things. Through tears I told them of the fire, of my fears and of my sadness. I told them about my escape, and about how there were tens of thousands of people who were, at least for the time being, homeless in a way because we were far away from our homes and not by choice. I spoke to them of how I had perhaps somehow hoped coming to Saskatoon would heal me, make me feel at home again, and how instead it had made me realize one core fact:

Home is Fort McMurray, and nowhere else.

As I sat there, in that peaceful place where my parents now reside, I found the healing I sought. It was not found in finding home in a place where it had once been, but in realizing that home, no matter the challenges, no matter the struggles and no matter the obstacles, was the place I have chosen for the last 15 years.

I needed to find the place that was no longer home to remember where home is.

As I drove away from the cemetery, my heart and head at peace for the first time since I drove through smoke, flames and fire to leave my city, I searched through my song list to find the perfect song.

And there it was, from decades ago but perfect in every way.

I don’t know the date and I don’t know what I will find when I arrive, but I will be there and I will be ready to rebuild.

And I know this:

I am coming home.





Late last night when I looked at my arms I realized they are a road map of fading bruises.

The bruises vary in size and shape, but most have moved from the black and blue shade they have when they are fresh to a dull brown-yellow colour. They don’t hurt quite as much as they did initially, but if I press on them the pain is still there. I have no idea how I acquired most of them, but they all date back to the same day: Tuesday, May 3.

The bruises are one of the visible reminders of the day I, and over 88,000 others, fled my home in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The approaching wildfire, now a part of Canadian history of great natural disasters, forced my entire community to flee, driven north or south to escape the flames.

There are those who claim no lives were lost in the mass evacuation, but of course two young lives ended when their attempt to escape resulted in a tragic vehicle accident. This wildfire may not have claimed any lives through its flames (at least, not as far as we yet know) but it was responsible for at least two deaths. We have not escaped unscathed.

And then there are the missing pets, many of whom may never be found. Their loss as family members will be grieved. And then there are the homes lost in the fire, taking with them not only possessions but feelings of safety, security and comfort.

Added to this are the over 88,000 traumatized evacuees, some who will undoubtedly develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as we work through our experiences, our memories and what we have each lost as individuals and collectively.

I see it in myself. Those fading bruises are just the external manifestation of the bruises I now carry on the inside – the ones that make me feel slightly panicked when I see a traffic jam, and the ones that make me feel vaguely alarmed when I see a simple sign that says: “In case of fire”. The bruises on my arms are fading far more quickly than the ones on my heart and my mind.

There is no way one can experience what tens of thousands have just experienced and not be forever altered. This year I will celebrate five decades on this planet, and I have perhaps learned more in the past week than I did in most of those years, despite all the other experiences I have had. Nothing can compare to the feeling that you may well lose your life, and your thoughts as you drive away from the city you love not knowing what will be there when you return.

My house is still standing. I am incredibly fortunate in this, and I am profoundly grateful to the fire fighters who worked so hard to try to save our entire community. What they gave to us – what they sacrificed and what they endured – is almost beyond imagining. We throw the word hero around a great deal, but for me that word is now reserved for individuals who are heading towards a fire when people like me are headed away. They are heroes, but they are more than that. They are responsible for us having anything to return to at all.

I cannot begin to count the many kindnesses I have been shown over the past week, and I have been glued to social media as this country poured out its love for Fort McMurray. I am so profoundly grateful to all who donated, volunteered and offered money, accommodations and support to my fellow community members and myself. It is truly a remarkable thing to witness.

It is even more remarkable to be a beneficiary of that kindness, and it brings me to tears every single time.

There are those who suggested this fire was some sort of karmic retribution, but I realized that people like that don’t even deserve my anger. Instead they deserve my pity, as I can only hope they never experience the things I did or see the things I have seen. I hope they never find themselves as bruised as I, and tens of thousands of others, find ourselves a little more than a week after we fled our homes.

There have been moments when I have acknowledged that while I survived physically I was not sure of my emotional survival. The constant smell of smoke, despite the air being quite clear. The incessant sound of sirens as I sleep, despite no emergency vehicles anywhere near. The tendency to simply begin to cry for what appears to be no reason, but is in fact for every reason: sorrow, gratitude, fear, uncertainty, joy.

It is overwhelming.

So many left comments or contacted me after I wrote about Fort McMurray and my experience just days after the fire. One in particular has stuck with me, and in my darkest moments being called a fucking viking warrior has perhaps given me the strength I needed to keep moving.

Fort McMurray is now a city of fucking viking warriors. And we will need to be as we rebuild – and reclaim – our community.

For the last week I have lived a bit of a nomadic life, first landing in Edmonton, then Calgary and now Saskatoon. All that time I spent alone in my car (except for the pets, of course) has been tremendously helpful, allowing those bruises to begin to heal. The ones on my skin are far ahead of the process than the ones on my heart, however.

There are times when I feel empty of words, and times when I feel so filled with them I cannot get them out quickly enough. There are the moments when I stop in front of a national newspaper and simply wonder at how my community has become front page news because of a natural disaster. There are moments when I speak to friends who have lost so much and I wonder how they can be so very strong, and yet they are.

I intend to go back to Fort McMurray as soon as possible. I want to be there for every step of this journey, to reclaim and to rebuild and to rise. I want to be part of that experience, because I have come to realize that the only way the bruises will mend is to be part of the healing. And we will heal.

It will take time. It will take support, long after the national media has moved on to other stories and other disasters. It will take strength and courage, but I know where we will find it. We will find it where we always have in Fort McMurray: each other.

Thank you once again, Canada. Thank you for reading, for loving, for caring, for sharing and for supporting. Thank you for seeing Fort McMurray as I always have – resilient and brave and home to tens of thousands of really amazing people. Thank you for being there as we fell to earth, and thank you for helping us to fly again.

Every day the bruises on my arm will fade a bit more, until they disappear. The bruises on the inside will take a bit longer, but I have faith that in time they too will fade. But the memories of this experience will never disappear, and I will be forever changed, just as Fort McMurray will be changed.

Change is not something to be feared. We have been through the worst. We have survived, bruises and all. We have a long road ahead, but we have everything we need to travel it. I know that with more certainty now than ever before. And in the end I know just one more thing.

We are bruised, but we are not broken. And that is all that matters.


The Phoenix

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.