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.
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.