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 a 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.