Kia Kaha

It has taken me some time to write this particular post. It isn’t because I haven’t wanted to, but rather because every time I attempted to do so I would end up staring at the screen in tears as I recognized the inadequacy of words to do what I needed to do.

You see I need to say thank you.

And it’s not that saying thank you is so difficult, but that in this case the words are so very inadequate for what they need to express.

On May 3 while my city, the home of my heart, was in flames, I drove away – while others stayed behind to fight the flames. It is they that I must find the words to thank, even when words fail in this attempt.

Until May 3 I had not had much experience with fire, beyond the occasional campfire and other casual glimpses of fire from afar. On that date, though, I saw the face of the beast, and as it roared down on my town I felt the heat of it’s breath.

Today I look out my window and see green trees and a sunny blue sky. On May 3 I saw smoke and flames, and felt sheer terror as I realized the magnitude of what was bearing down on my community. As I drove away I passed dozens of first responders, and as I fled I realized that while I could leave they were going to stay.

And stay they did. They stayed even as their own homes burned down. They stayed despite their own losses and despite their own families being forced to flee without them.

While 94,000 people fled, they stayed. They stood their ground. They fought the flames the rest of us could not fight.

And it was not just the first responders, but all those who stayed behind to support them. There are far too many to list, and in naming them some would undoubtedly be missed – but the reality is that while others were driving away some were instead driving closer to the fire.

I don’t want them to think, even for a second, that what they did will be forgotten.

This week a colleague told me of his harrowing escape, including the streaks of fire shooting across the road at one point. He named the street and my heart stopped, as it is just a block away from my own.


That is how close it came to being my home and my neighbourhood.

When they speak of the fight to save Thickwood it is the fight to save the place where my home is found.

Another friend showed me his charred fence, and the remnants of chunks of burned embers on the wooden deck in his backyard. The flames took the house two doors from his own, but they did not reach his, thanks only to the efforts of the ones who stayed behind to fight.

When they speak of the battle to save Wood Buffalo it is my friend’s home to which they refer.

They could not save them all, and this is perhaps the most troubling part as I know a few firefighters and I know that losing to the flames is not something that goes down easily for them. I suspect that as they fought the flames they waged their own internal wars, acknowledging with broken hearts what they could not save and moving on in the hopes of saving others.

I have always admired courage and those who display it. On occasion through this experience I have even been called courageous or resilient, but the truth is that the real courage and the real resiliency is found in those who stayed behind while people like me watched from far away.

And while the flames are now behind us, there is no doubt that the impact remains. There are still moments when I can close my eyes and see it all so clearly, and feel the terror all over again.

If it is powerful for people like me who had the luxury to flee, I cannot even imagine how it is for those who stayed behind to fight. I cannot imagine what they see when they close their eyes.

On May 3rd as I drove away I spoke to a radio station in New Zealand. They had heard about the fire, and wanted to interview someone who could speak to the experience. It was surreal to sit in my car, driving away from the city I love, speaking to an audience on the other side of the world. The folks from that radio station have stayed in touch, and as we have interacted they have shared with me a Maori phrase.

Kia kaha.

They tell me it translates fairly simply as “be strong – my thoughts are with you”. And perhaps that is what I need to say instead of thank you. Perhaps that is why thank you feels like a failure, when what I want to say is “thank you – and be strong, as my thoughts are with you, not just today but forever”.

I won’t forget the battle to save my city. I won’t forget those who fought it, and I won’t forget the face of the beast they fought. It is seared into my mind by the hot wind it carried with it.

This song and video is from a local group of musicians. If you are from our community and can watch it without tears stinging your eyes then you are a stronger person than I.

I doubt I will ever be able to watch it without tears, because it captures everything so beautifully.

To all those who stayed behind when I fled: thank you, even though though those words seem so very small in comparison to the enormity of what you did.

Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your resiliency.

Thank you for being there for our community.

Thank you for staying to fight when I had to leave.

And kia kaha.

A (Re)New(ed) Normal

I think one of the most telling moments for me since June 3rd was driving down Franklin Avenue, a drive I have taken thousands of times in the last 15 years, and spotting a truck emblazoned with a slogan that included the words “disaster recovery”. Both words, ones I never would have thought of before in connection to my community, were so very impactful and compelling as they described what happened on May 3rd, and what has been happening ever since.

The wildfire that drove tens of thousands from Fort McMurray on May 3rd was, by any measure, a disaster. While 90% of our community still stands, the 10% that was devastated consisted primarily of residential properties, with a few businesses mixed in. Entire neighbourhoods were virtually razed, and subsequent to the fire the presence of toxic residues in the ash has prevented even those with standing homes in those areas from returning there to reside.

And the truth is that if you have lived in our community for any length of time, you know someone who has been impacted in those areas.That this disaster has affected each and every one of us in some way is unquestionable, but our experiences range widely, separated only by the very thin line of where our house or business happened to be. That we have experienced a disaster is without doubt, although it is difficult to accept that your city, the home of almost every person you love on this planet, is also home to a disaster.

But while the word “disaster” caught my eye it was the word “recovery” that has started me on a thoughtful path since my return home. It is all those words beginning with “re” that we are seeing now, and all they mean is beginning to become clear.





Of course those are the four most commonly seen and considered, but I have been thinking of some other ones, too:










And, finally…


Someone asked me recently if life in my community – my life  – is back to normal. I responded that is not the normal I knew before May 3, but a new normal, or perhaps, more accurately, a renewed normal.

One of the first things I noted on my return to Fort McMurray was the appearance of green grass where just weeks before I had seen flames. And this grass is not just green, but a brilliant lime-green shade so vibrant it seems almost as surreal as the red-orange flames that preceded it. The grass has not just returned, but it has been renewed, coming back in the most incredibly bright and colourful way.

Crises happen in our lives. That is just a simple fact, whether they are wildfires, illnesses, accidents, deaths, divorces…they are as myriad as we are. And after every crisis there are the practical and pragmatic considerations, the rebuilding and recovery phases; and so too there are the softer considerations, the opportunities to reflect, reaffirm, rethink, revision, and, yes, renew.

Change can be very frightening – terrifying, in fact. I have been through it more than once, life altering changes where you simply don’t know if you will be the same person coming out that you went in, like you’ve entered some sort of machine created by science fiction designed to alter who you are. And, the truth is, you probably won’t be the same.

But swap out one single consonant and “change” becomes “chance”, an opportunity to redefine and reawaken. We can do this with ourselves, and with our communities. We can take the crisis that changed us and make it into one that gave us a chance to do something we otherwise may never do: experience renewal.

Ever been very ill, with a virus so nasty you simply felt like all that was healthy had been snuffed out of you? And then remember how as you got better you suddenly felt alive again, almost better than ever and like your brush with sickness had somehow reminded you of all that was good about life and everything around you? Like you had been somehow renewed by going through something painful and difficult and awful?

Yes. Renewal. A renewed normal, in fact, not like you were before, not necessarily worse or even better – just different.

The current buzzword in our community is resilience, the ability to come back quickly from adverse circumstances. Resilience, though, is not contingent on forgetting. In fact, part of what contributes to resilience is our ability to remember and recognize what we have experienced, allowing it to form our resolve to move ahead. The leaders who will emerge from this crisis will be the ones who can put aside personal, professional and political differences to remember and recognize while resolving to move into the future, unencumbered by the shackles of past conflicts. They will embrace resilience, and exemplify it.





When I went through my divorce a few years ago there was one song I kept returning to. It spoke to me on so many levels, because it was about moving on. It was about learning to do all the things I did before, realizing things might have changed and I might have changed but that I was resilient because I recognized and remembered what I had been through. I was renewed.

I have been so very fortunate. I know the journey I am on is different from that of others in my community; it is however my journey all the same and the path I must travel, even though it will be different from the one others will follow.

And I know my life in Fort McMurray may not be the normal it was before May 3, but it is a new normal. A renewed normal.

And that, my friends, is okay.

In fact, it may be for me the very definition of resilience.




All In

The tears started to form well before the first tinge of smoke hit my nostrils. I was probably still 45 km outside the urban limits, but I could feel the emotions of the last month beginning to well up just as the tears were threatening to do.

After over a month as an evacuee, and after a hasty departure on May 3, 2016, on June 3, 2016, I was headed home to Fort McMurray.

It was a bright and sunny day, the highway remarkably clear except for the other few vehicles headed north just as I was. I wondered if in each of those cars and trucks was someone like me, feeling every range of emotion from excitement to fear.

As I drove the waves of the last month washed over me. To call it a journey would be to minimize what was an epic trek of gigantic proportions, through valleys as deep as the deepest ocean trench to mountains as high as Everest. It was a journey of the heart, mind and spirit as I walked through the most difficult experience of my life, passing in intensity even the deaths of both my parents and my divorce after 24 years of marriage. The four and a half hours I drove from Edmonton on June 3 was like some strange reverse trip of the one I took on May 3, when so very much was uncertain and unknown. On May 3 I did not know if I would have a home to return to. On June 3, I returned to it.

It’s hard to capture the last month. I have written about it, feeling my way through it as I experienced it, but to try to encapsulate it in any one written piece would be impossible. There were far too many emotions and far too few words that could do it any justice, and yet I kept trying, because that is what writers do. We try to capture those elusive feelings and experiences, pin them down on paper for others to see as if we are an entomologist catching butterflies. But in this instance the butterfly refused to be caught, escaping again and again and fluttering away, just out of my reach as I tried to grasp it.

On May 3 when I drove away from my home for the last 15 years I was in a state of shock, denial and pain. I could not believe what was happening to my city, and I could not stand the pain as I watched it burn. On June 3 as I drove that trip in reverse I had recovered from the shock and denial was far behind me, but the pain for what my community had gone through remained as I remembered May 3.

I have lived in many places over my life. At some point in the last fifteen years, though, I have given myself entirely to Fort McMurray. Like a poker player in a scene in a movie, I have stretched out my hands and pushed all my chips to the centre of the table and said “I am all in”.

I am completely invested, financially, emotionally, spiritually. I have bet it all on Fort McMurray, but not so much on the city as on the people who call it home and who are why I have chosen to stay here even when other options presented themselves. Fort McMurray long ago stopped being place and became my place, a fine but telling difference.

Over the last month there were dark moments. There were times when I felt grief and fear, and times when I worried for the future. But there were the moments that brought light to the darkness, and when I saw the infinite hope in our community and our nature, and the bright light always drove out the darkness.

There were moments when I thought I felt it too deeply perhaps, struggled too much, and yet I have come to understand that struggling is not my weakness; it is instead my strength. The ability to feel deeply is who I am, and it allows me to share my experience with others in the hope it may help them to understand or find their own strength. Nothing interesting is ever written about a life devoid of challenge and occasional struggles, and my willingness to expose my own may well be why I write at all.

As I drove home on June 3 I reflected over the events of the past month. I thought about all the challenges that lie ahead for all of us, each facing different ones as our experiences are all different, and about how we can support each other and help each other heal as we find our way through it and into the future.

As I approached the bridge I saw them, of course. There they were, the first responders standing on the bridge flanked by two fire trucks with a Canadian flag flying. I opened my sunroof and stuck out my hand, waving to them frantically, and saw them all begin to wave back, just as frantically, a moment of connection as my car passed beneath. And yet there is a far deeper connection to them now, as those individuals and hundreds like them from across this country fought for my city when I could not, and I quietly cried as I drove underneath them, pure gratitude enveloping me.

It was hard to drive past Beacon Hill, the area where my daughter attended her first school and the neighbourhood where I know so many through those ties, not seeing the roof tops you used to glimpse from the road and now knowing they were gone, along with so many others belonging to people I hold dear. Waterways was equally difficult, seeing the destroyed homes in the neighbourhood where I know so many are so passionate about their community..

And driving past Abasand left me feeling empty, as that is where I lived for so many years. The house my ex-husband and I designed, the one we built and the one where our daughter grew up? On May 3, it burned down, the place I no longer own but that held a piece of my heart as I knew every single nook and cranny, knew how we had them put extra screws in the floorboards to reduce the creaking, knew how the window above the jet tub in the bathroom was positioned perfectly so you could watch the stars at night while you let the worries of the day float away. That house – that home – now gone. And even though my residency there ended long ago, it hurt my heart to think about it.

Driving to my own area was odd, as if one started the journey there one could almost think nothing had happened. Lush green grass and thick trees blanket Thickwood Boulevard, and as I arrived to my driveway I was struck at how it seemed time had simply stopped.

I turned my key in the lock and found my house – my home – virtually as I had left it on May 3.

Scattered on the bedroom floor were the papers I had tossed there in my haste as I searched for an important document. Flung around was clothing I had considered and rejected, and in every room there was signs of a hasty departure, including a sink filled with dishes covered with an indescribable science experiment of sorts.

There were small wins – the fridge and freezer were fine, only losing power for an hour or so, and the load forgotten in the washing machine had dried instead of going to mold. There were small losses, a thick smell of smoke in my basement, particularly bad in a couple of rooms. But overall, in every way, my house was much as I left it…with the exception of one large sooty handprint on the railing to my basement, undoubtedly left there by someone who came to rescue my ferrets and my hedgehog.

And yes, they were rescued, the caged critters I was forced to leave behind on May 3. They were plucked out and brought to Edmonton, where I reunited with them over the last month as they left the kind foster care of others who offered to take them in until I could come home. My gratitude for that knows no bounds.

There was a degree of the surreal to it all. How could my little house seem almost the very same as when I left it when I had been through so much over the past month? How had it not changed when I had changed? When so much had changed for all of us?

There are experiences in this life we cannot explain. All we can do is feel them, find our way through them, struggle if we need to and experience all the emotions they bring. The deaths of my parents was one of those, as was my divorce – and as is the Fort McMurray Wildfire, a life altering experience that needed to be felt, not explained.

In the days since I have arrived home I have watched as my city begins to come to life. I was there when my neighbours began to arrive, with hugs and welcomes and true excitement to see them come back. I have been there as our streets begin to fill and as stores begin to open. I have gone from the first very quiet night on my street to one where last night I could hear laughter through my open window, no smell of smoke in the air and only the scent of the lilacs in my neighbour’s yard filling my room.

I don’t believe that things happen for a reason. I believe that things just happen, and we try to find reason in them even when there is none. I do believe that when things happen, though, we can determine how we respond even if we cannot control what happened. None of us could control the fire that raged through our community, but what we do next? That we can control. And I know what I am doing.

I am pushing all those poker chips back into the centre of the table. What the fire reminded me is that every single thing in this community is worth fighting for, whether it is with fire hoses or with our hearts. Every single person in this city contributes to making it what it is, and every single one is needed as we move into the future. We are fortunate that the majority of our city survived the flames, and from that point of strength we will rebuild to ensure that every single person who calls this home can return here to be part of that future.

And that future? It is likely different than the one we envisioned on May 3, 2016 – and that’s okay. Part of life is allowing our experiences to change us, and to change our future; but we can control how it changes us, and how it changes that future. And it is up to each and every one of us.

On May 3, 2016, I awoke to a bright and sunny day.

On May 4, 2016, I awoke to my life forever altered by a force of nature beyond my control.

And on June 4, 2016, I awoke in my bed in Fort McMurray, drew back the curtains and saw the sun shining down on another bright and beautiful day in my community.

I was home.

And I was, as I always have been, all in.

I’m Coming Home

28 days. 4 weeks. 1 month.

And tomorrow, the exodus reverses, and some of the 94,000 residents who fled in the face of approaching flames begin the long journey north – and home.

In terms of distance, it isn’t actually that long for me, as I have been hovering in the area for this entire time, never far away enough to be more than a few hours from the Fort McMurray city limits. It was almost like I was on a leash, stretched as far as I could go but no further, tied to my community by the kinds of invisible bonds that are far stronger than any fire. Flame proof, perhaps.

In terms of emotions and my heart, the distance is immense, and the journey home that I will embark on this week is one fraught with perils. I swing between joy at returning to my home and sorrow over the many who cannot. I look at the aerial photos of my little house, still standing there and looking just as I left it (including those damn tires I meant to take to the dump weeks ago, taunting me in their clarity in the pictures as a reminder of my procrastination) and then I look at photos of a friend’s house left in rubble.

I don’t know if there is an emotion I have not experienced over the last 28 days.

Anger, happiness, sadness, confusion…they have all melted together in some sort of goo, an endless pit of emotion I wish I could cap with the kind of plastic substance they are now spraying on the burned buildings, keeping the ashes from becoming airborne in the same way my emotions threaten to do.

It has been overwhelming. Exhausting. And a trial by fire for all of us.

When I drove away from my community – the home of my heart – 28 days ago I could not have imagined where this journey would take me. That exodus now reminds me of the scene from The Ten Commandments – you know, the one where they are fleeing the Egyptians with all manner of children and oxcarts and horses and goats? It was the moment when I saw the photo of someone escaping with a lamb in their back seat that clinched it. The Red Sea that parted for us wasn’t one made of water, but rather of flames, and now, with the flames past us, we begin to turn ourselves north.

Well, some of us do. There are some who will choose to not to re-enter our community at this time, given that this is voluntary and many challenges remain: a boil water advisory, limited services and other unusual circumstances. Each decision is as individual and unique as we are, and each and every one as deserving of respect.

And some cannot go home, learning this week that their neighbourhoods have been deemed too dangerous for them to return at this time.

Oh, how my heart hurts.

How can one be happy when others are in pain?

But I know I am being pulled north, this leash around me tightening as my day to re-enter my community draws ever nearer. I cannot stand to be away one more moment than necessary, dutifully following the guidelines laid out for an orderly repopulation of my community and yet tempted to flout the rules and return the very instant I can.

But I will wait. On Friday morning I will load up three cats, two ferrets and one hedgehog, the latter three rescued by the kindness of others, and we will point ourselves north. I don’t know what we will find when we turn the key on the place where we all live together, my crazy little menagerie and I (missing the dog who is on vacation until a later date, which will delight the cats when they realize they are home and she is not). I know that I will find my community still there, a bit battered, a bit bruised, a bit frayed at the edges and torn at the seams and weary and tired…and home.

I learned so much over the last 28 days. I suspect most of us did, the 94,000 who were part of that crazy exodus one month ago. Most of all I learned exactly how much I love the people in my life and my community. It is far deeper than even I knew, but I know it now.

There remain many unknowns. How we will rebuild (and rebuild we will, just watch us!), and how we will take this experience and let it rebuild us into better people and a stronger community. But for all the unknowns and all the questions, I know one thing very well:

I’m coming home.