Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Put It In the Rear View Mirror

Perhaps it is just me who hesitates when it comes to touching a keyboard to write about May 3rd. 

Maybe I am alone in this maelstrom of emotions as I try to figure out how I feel, exactly, about a life-altering, community-altering, event five years ago.

Sometimes I recount my story to people who weren't here five years ago, the tale of a day unlike any other I've ever experienced.

The beautifully warm and sunny morning, filling the dog's water bowl before work and thinking of the day ahead.

Settling in at work and sensing rising apprehension in those around me, but staying calm as staying calm is just what I do, even when I am not calm.

The moment when I saw flames rising from Abasand from my office window and knew.

The moment I stood in a field and watched the flames as I called my daughter in another city simply to tell her I love her.

The moment I drove back to my house and in thirty minutes packed an SUV full with a small suitcase, a mountain of pet supplies and some bewildered animals.

The moment I placed three cats and an elderly dog in my office, promising them I would figure out the next steps soon.

The moment the Premier announced the mass evacuation of my home.

The moment I loaded up three now completely flustered cats and one anxious dog for a trip down the highway that would last over 8 hours.

The moment I drove by Abasand hill and it was on fire. And so was the hill by Beacon Hill. 

And so were the buildings.

The moment the fire was exceptionally close and I could feel the temperature rise, both physically and emotionally.

The moment during that trip I gave an interview to a radio station in New Zealand, at the same time figuring out if I had enough gas to make the next town, realizing I had failed to bring a coat, and that the dog was now at the howling stage of disapproval.

The heart-stopping moment when I cleared the edges of my beloved community, looked in the rear view mirror, and saw nothing but roiling black smoke.

I remember the entire day as clearly as if it were yesterday, and yet it seems as shrouded in smoke as that final view of what I was leaving behind.

Of the three days that followed I remember virtually nothing. I realize now I was in some form of shock. Like every other person on that day, mortality felt terribly close and for the first time in my life I wondered if I might die. 

I spent those days in the limbo of not knowing what had happened to my home, my friends, my colleagues; a blur of check-in phone calls and tweets and pajama-clad visits to the front desk of the gracious hotel in which I was staying for milk and Coke Zero and Tylenol and human connection.

May 3rd changed my life. Forever.

There have now been four anniversaries of that date, the first and second and third and fourth. And each year I have grappled with the emotions, brushed up against the memories while trying to shove them further into the recesses of my mind as they hurt and burn and feel sharp and yet dull at the same time.

And this year, in another year unlike any other, a year in which mortality again felt far too close and the fear I felt seemed awfully familiar, I finally found some sort of peace.

And put it all in the rear view mirror.

The 2016 wildfire happened to me, but it doesn't define me. 

And it doesn't define Fort McMurray.

I'm not going to lie. When people who didn't experience the fire begin to speak about it, I can feel myself bristle. It's the ultimate "unless you were there" experience, another time when we all experienced the same thing but with different impacts, so similar to our most recent global experience with the pandemic. 

The 2016 wildfire is now five years behind us. It happened to us, but it isn't who we are. It's a small part of who we are, this community of "big" - big spirit, big oil, big energy, big visions, big community - and big fire. A big fire, perhaps, but a small part of us, because we are truly so much bigger than any fire.

Just as we each had a different experience during the fire, I am certain we are all at different points in our journey with it. Some probably can't even see it in their rear view mirror anymore, while some are still close enough to it to smell the smoke.

For me, though, year 5 feels a lot like that moment when I looked in my rear view mirror, and while I could still see the smoke what I mostly saw was bright blue sky.

2016 is in my rear view mirror now. And instead of looking back, I am looking at the road ahead. It looks like it's going to be another long drive, but you know what?

I like road trips.



Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Regional Mutiny of Wood Buffalo

 Mutiny.

It's a bold word, one with a long history of ship crews overthrowing their masters to seize control. Undoubtedly, sometimes it was without cause, but often it was likely rooted in a determination to preserve the health and safety of the crew, which may have been of secondary concern for ship captains and owners more focused on profit than people.

Enter the recent debacle - or calamity as Mayor Don Scott has called it - regarding the determination of the current Alberta government in transitioning local emergency services dispatch to a centralized model. This is despite previous governments (four, in fact) suggesting the same strategy and backing down when confronted with the facts.

The truth is that our region is unique. When an emergency arises, it is as likely to occur on some unspecified point on Tower Road or some remote corner of the many rural spots in our region as it is in urban Fort McMurray. The difference is that local dispatchers know the region. They know the hidden spots, the nicknames, the best ways to get there from here...but a central dispatcher can never hold that information.

So what does that mean for our region, our communities, our people?

Lives.

In an emergency, the adage that every second counts isn't just a saying. It's true. Every. single. second. 

The difference between life and death hangs on if a dispatcher knows the region - or not.

For the last several months, RMWB Council has been trying to work with the province on this issue. Trying to show them the facts, how our dispatchers are faster than a centralized service, how this change will negatively impact our community...and how it will, eventually, cost lives.

All to no avail. The Government of Alberta has turned a deaf ear to us, not only suggesting our concerns were invalid but that we were in some way lying about the consequences.

And so, they moved ahead with the transition, without any consideration of our concerns and fears. Despite the offer from our municipal council to pay for the service, since our provincial government indicated cost was the issue (and one has to wonder if we were going to pay, was cost really the issue? Cue conspiracy theories here). Despite everything.

And we are already seeing the real cost, just days after the transition. Stories are already rapidly emerging about delays, about mis-steps, about tragedies in the making. 

And still the province refuses to budge.

And so, mutiny.

Today, at their regular council meeting, RMWB Council voted unanimously to approve a motion that would see our local dispatchers refuse to transfer calls to the centralized dispatch.

Defiance, the same kind the province has exhibited, but defiance in support of saving lives by saving time for every emergency call requiring medical services.

It's perhaps the boldest move I have ever seen made by a municipal council. And I have never seen it more necessary, more courageous and more critical. And for this I say bravo to our council, bravo indeed. And brave, too.

In 2016, this region's determination was forged by fire, and this past year by flood. We have been going through an economic downtown (more than one, really) and a pandemic. And we remain resolute.

We are committed to each other, to our community, and to our safety - and ship captains focused on profit (because surely that plays some role in the provincial decision) be damned.

And so, Regional Mutiny of Wood Buffalo.

It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?




Thursday, December 17, 2020

Vulnerability is 2020

 


2020 has been a year that has exposed some of the most fragile aspects of the human psyche; fear, anger, disbelief. And for many of us it has exposed our vulnerabilities in ways we never thought it would; the things that keep us awake at night, staring into the dark as we play out myriad “what ifs” that seem to pale as soon as the morning light hits our faces.

As a writer, 2020 coincided with some events in my personal life that impacted my confidence – and my comfort level with vulnerability.

When I first began writing this blog, I never even thought about vulnerability. I just wrote what I wrote, blissfully unaware or uncaring what anyone else thought. The freedom was exhilarating, but like many freedoms, it did not last.

Over time I began to pull myself closer in. And in the last couple of years wound it down so tightly that I struggled to write because for me, writing is sharing. It is the height of vulnerability.

Recently someone posted something I had written a few years ago, with the intent to point out how misguided I had been. I read my own words and saw that freedom I once embraced. And I saw growth, and change.

Some of the things I have written in the past I still believe to be true. Others I do not. And thank goodness for that, because perhaps one of my only fears in life is that I cease to grow and change, becoming stagnant over time as I grow too old – or too stubborn – to change.

Someone who was once a friend said, at the point where our friendship was seeing its timely demise, that I had changed and was losing people who were once close to me as a result. And I recall thinking what a tremendous relief that was, because it meant that while they were once “my people” that I had changed, and for the better, too.

Change is not bad and not good; change is inevitable, and whether it is good or bad is often how we react to it rather than the actual nature of the change.

Over the course of the past year as I began to put pen to paper (or more accurately fingers to keyboard) I have hesitated; and more often than not I walked away, rejecting vulnerability and both the weight and the freedom it creates.

Until recently. I attended a course discussing vulnerability in leadership, and realized that over the past three years while I had remained vulnerable in my professional life I had moved away from doing so in my personal life; and with that change went my desire, and even my ability, to write in the personal, honest and vulnerable manner I have always done in this blog.

Like many people this year, I found myself in occasional dark spaces, not the physical kind but the sort where everything you see seems a bit more opaque and darker than it should be. And like many, I chose to seek some outside help to fight the darkness and see colour again, reaching out to a therapist I have spoken to before. Her suggestion?

Write again. Write about shoes or cats or snow globes or whatever crazy ass thing you want to write about, just write.

And so, here I am. It’s hard to know what to write about, which is perhaps why I have walked away so often. It is hard to know where to start again, and it makes me take a short, sharp breath when I think about being vulnerable again.

And yet what I know is that who I am – what I have and where I find myself – is because of writing with vulnerability. And I know that when my writing resonates with someone else I have always found myself at peace with being vulnerable.

2020 has been a blender. In our community – this place I love, this place that makes me crazy, this place that has been the best thing that ever happened to me – the challenges of 2020 have been compounded by a natural disaster and an economy that looks very different from just a few short years ago. We are in a very large blender, probably the Ninja kind with very sharp blades that whirl at light speed and could chop your hand off. And we know a bit about blenders, because many of  us lived through May 2016, which was perhaps the most blenderizing experience one could imagine.

Which brings me back to change, and vulnerability. We have been through change. We have been vulnerable. We have seen the darkness, stared into the blackness and thought “what if”.

And yet, here we are. Shaken, but not broken. We have the chance to embrace vulnerability – the fears, the what ifs, the honesty – and come out of the blender whole, not in pieces. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, if there is a lesson to be learned in 2020, this is it. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?

In April of 2016, I made the decision to close this blog, posting a farewell message at the end of April.

Mere days later, the devastating wildfire that changed our community forever struck.

In February of 2020, I embraced this blog once more, realizing I had missed writing about the community that has been in my heart for two decades.

Mere weeks later, the pandemic that will change our world forever struck.

Coincidence? Absolutely, but it was enough to give me some pause when considering that this blog seems tied in some intimate way to these significant events.

Since the beginning of March I have struggled, immensely, with writing in this blog. Like, what else could be said about this pandemic that wasn't already said, written, broadcast, Facebooked, podcasted?

Well, maybe nothing. I wrote a couple of heartfelt posts that I never published, not knowing quite why but knowing that I just didn't want to, perhaps because they felt too close and too vulnerable.

And maybe that's the point. Maybe the pandemic - like the wildfire, like the price of oil, like the flood this spring - made us feel vulnerable. Made me feel vulnerable, much like sharing my personal thoughts in a very public place do.

The older I get, the less I like feeling vulnerable. And the longer I am here, the less I like this community feeling vulnerable, too.

Fort McMurray has now officially been pummeled repeatedly by forces beyond our control. One of the mantras I have always lived by is that while we cannot always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it.

That's true for me and my experience so far in 2020 (and frankly 2020, I can't believe I stayed up late to celebrate your arrival given what a rotten guest you've turned out to be). And it's true for our community.

We have a lot to think about in terms of our response. Recently I have been disheartened to see an increase in negativity about life here, likely fueled by the many changes we have seen. And I have felt it too, dismay over the closure over local stores and services, the sense of things changing and not necessarily for the better.

And while we cannot control much of what is happening to us, we can control how we respond to it.

And so I have chosen to write again, to lean into the feeling of vulnerability, and to begin to explore how we can respond to the changes we are seeing while working towards a stronger and better community.

Because here is another truth: no level of government is responsible for building community.

Governments build roads. They build schools. They build critical infrastructure.

They don't build communities.

We - you and I - build community. It is what we do that determines the tone of where we live; it is our actions and choices that define what type of community we live in.

And given that truth, the question we must ask is what we are doing to build our community. What is our contribution? What is our goal? 

What is our response when we are caught in a situation we don't control?

This is what I find myself pondering lately as we continue to face unprecedented (word of the year right there!) challenges.

While I don't have the answers, I know it's something I want to explore. So I am kickstarting this blog (again) and starting to write (again) and hoping it doesn't result in another "coincidence" (NOT AGAIN, you hear me universe?).

Being vulnerable is hard. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. But it is where growth happens.

Here is what I know: Fort McMurray has changed, and is changing. And to some degree we have zero control.

Here is what else I know: We can control how we respond to these changes. We can define and determine the community we want, and we can build it.

Where do we go from here?

We have a new challenge. And a new opportunity.

And I've never known Fort McMurray to back down from either.



Thursday, April 2, 2020

John and Betty

At the end of April, 2016, I penned a farewell note in this blog.

Just days later, a blazing inferno descended on my community.

Just weeks ago I penned an "I'm back" note on this blog.

Weeks later a blazing inferno descended on all of us.

Coincidence? Obviously.

And yet I think in the way our brains do, my brain seeks a pattern and found this one, this little blog acting as some sort of bizarre marker in my life, two major crises somehow reflected in it.

I have struggled to write about this, as it feels like every word that could possibly be written about a pandemic likely has already been put on paper or a screen; and yet I felt compelled to finally write about my own feelings on this experience as this week they culminated in a terrible revelation.

For the very first time, in over a decade, I was grateful that my parents were gone.

My mother died on March 10, 2009. My father died only three years before, on March 14, 2006. When we buried my mother it was March 14, 2009.

Coincidence? Obviously.

And yet somehow it never felt quite coincidental.

March has not been my favourite month for a very, very long time.

And this year March took on new catastrophic proportions as the reality of the pandemic began to hit hard and deep, and I found myself grateful that they were gone.

They would be in their nineties now, terribly vulnerable to this illness. They were born in the 1920's; they saw the Dirty Thirties and the Great Depression. They saw World War II, the polio pandemic, the Cold War, and more.

My mother lost a sister to scarlet fever when antibiotic use was still in its infancy; they knew the impacts of the Spanish Flu pandemic as while it had just missed hitting them directly it had deep effects on the world they grew up in.

And this week I found myself being so grateful that they did not have endure this towards the end of their lives, this frightening time.

And then, in a sudden moment of clarity, I realized I had it entirely wrong.

If anyone could have handled this, it was my parents.

They had in  fact seen it all. Wars and diseases, tragedies and death. If anyone could have been strong through all of this, it was them.

It's me who will struggle, their youngest child born during a time of relative prosperity and only knowing their struggles through their stories. The challenges I have faced in my life pale compared to theirs.

This is a difficult time. But like my parents I know I must look for the things that ground me; the reasons for hope in the uncertainty.

My daughter, my work, my family and friends, my home, my firm belief in our ability to overcome; these are the things that saw me through the blazing inferno in 2016, and they will see me through this fire, too.

And my parents. I wish they were here, because I would like to be able to tell them that they are the reason I can make it through the things I do. Their strength, their courage, their wisdom and their love gave me every tool I need to build a refuge of strength in a sea of uncertainty.

My parents always believed in the good we could do; they believed in taking care of others before themselves. They knew the importance of community and of connection; they knew how to find the silver in the darkest of clouds.

And they didn't learn any of that because their lives had been easy.

So here we are. The days ahead remain uncertain, and there will likely be some very hard times; there is no denying that. But just as my parents - and grandparents and every single ancestor - did, I will persevere. Really, what else is one to do?

Yesterday I baked banana bread with my daughter, just as my mother did with me. I stripped the beds and threw everything into the wash, just as my mother always did when she needed to focus on something other than the immediate.

And I got to work, doing what I can do personally and professionally to help others, because that, at its very core, is what they did - always.

And that is how they survived both the best and worst of times.

Because in the end what they believed in - whether during war or peace, tragedy or celebration, life or death - was the need for all of us to be there for each other, as in the end that is truly all that will ever really matter.

Today I am just grateful for their example - and that they have always been, and still are, in some way, here for me.



Sunday, February 23, 2020

Hero Takes a Fall

As humans, we have a disturbing tendency to idolize other human beings, a precarious position to put them in as we may forget they are as fallible and flawed as we are. Often, this creation of idols and heroes leads to inevitable disappointment, as we learn our "heroes" may not be quite what we believe them to be.

Recently, Darby Allen, the RMWB Fire Chief who stewarded the emergency response  during the wildfire in 2016, was the subject of an article that depicted this regional "hero" in a new light - and not a flattering one.

While a court case is outstanding, some of the facts are known, including that Chief Allen was fired from the City of Calgary prior to his arrival here, and the circumstances surrounding his dismissal appear to be directly related to the complaint of sexual harassment from a female employee. There are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered, such as if our municipal leadership knew of this past when he was hired, if they did know prior to his being hired why this was not factored into that decision and of course if any similar complaints occurred during his time here. Perhaps those answers will one day be revealed, but in the interim what we are left to ponder is the concept of heroism.



I must admit that even in 2016, I struggled with the concept of Darby Allen as a hero. That's not because I had any knowledge of his past or any particular disagreement with his actions during that time, but rather because I didn't quite understand how his individual actions led to the badge of hero. He did his job, as many did during those days, and while he became the "face" of the fire, his calm and measured voice in videos reassuring panicky residents, I felt that tagging him as a hero was a bit dismissive of all the others who showed equal, if not greater, heroism: the firefighters on the front lines, the RCMP officers who dealt with residents as we evacuated in a panicked state, the folks who provided evacuees with food and water and gas and places to stay, the people who rescued pets, the people who opened their cars to other fleeing and frightened residents, and every single one of us who pulled together during what was likely the most difficult experience of our lives. Those, I thought, were everyday and real heroes, but they were nameless and faceless and not in daily videos, and so their acts of heroism, while noted, did not lead to the kind of  public accolades Darby received. If we reflect deeply we also may realize that the label of hero is one we affixed to him, not one he chose; so if someone we have decided is a hero then disappoints us, is the blame on them - or us?

And the evaluation of the job he did during the fire depends on who you talk to, of course. Some think he was a hero; some do not, and much depends on what they experienced and their individual perspective. But the real challenge is that there is great risk in identifying any one individual as a hero, as when we discover that our "heroes" are imperfect our bitter disappointment is often magnified.

Over the last few years (and through some difficult times) I have learned some disappointing but fundamental truths. People can have brilliant minds, but house dark hearts. People can be talented and accomplished professionals but be deeply destructive leaders. And people we deem to be "heroes" may well be deeply, deeply flawed.

And it is because at the end of the day we are human. We are all subject to the same traits: and some of them lead us to heroic acts of courage while others take us down dark paths.

When our heroes take a fall, we should  perhaps not look more closely at them but at ourselves. In our rush to proclaim them as heroes we often fail ourselves, as we are set up for that deep disappointment when we discover that our heroes are, in truth, simply humans after all.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Here’s Your Sign: Welcome to the City of Fort McMurray


This sign.

In May, 2016,  this sign was destroyed during the massive wildfire this community will never forget. I recall coming back when the long evacuation ended and realizing the sign was gone and sadness washing over me. The loss of this sign troubled me far more than I ever thought it could, and I still miss it even today.

Maybe it’s because it was so reflective of Fort McMurray in all its quirky “wrongness”. Fort McMurray ceased being a city when amalgamation took place in 1995 (yes, 25 years ago in April of this year). And even the look of the sign was a throwback to the days when Fort McMurray was smaller and didn’t concern itself with grandiose placemaking signs. No sir, a sign made of items that looked like they were dragged out of the boreal forest was just fine with us, no need for your high-falutin’ graphic design work (I mean, look at that font! It makes me grin every time).

So, here’s the deal. In my heart, I want this sign back. Not an updated version, not one with the error corrected, not one that’s part of some grand signage scheme so it looks like all the other signs in the region.

No.

This sign.

The sign that made me smile every time I came home after a long trip, the sign that was wrong and yet so right in every way that mattered, this sign that was destroyed  by the fire but barring that fact would likely still be standing today.

I want this sign. As a reminder of the past, as a replacement of what we lost, as some small “in your face” to the fire that broke our hearts but that failed to break us.

This sign. How I miss it.