I woke up the next morning to news on Twitter of a devastating apartment building fire. It was right across from Ecole McTavish, the Intrepid Junior Blogger's school, and I watched as reports from those who witnessed it began to roll in. There were photos of some of the evacuees in the atrium at McTavish, a spot I know very well, and even dogs and cats milling about in the school. There were photos of the fire as well, horrible photos showing homes in flames. And there were tweets about what people could do - donate, provide support, how to help - because the one question that seemed at the front of every mind in this community was: "How can I help the people who have lost their homes in this fire?".
When the IJB went to school on Tuesday (the school, as I recall, closed on Monday after a long and harrowing Sunday night which saw the principal called in very late at night to open the school to evacuees and firefighters). When she came home she came with a list - a list of how to help. There were suggested items to donate, and suggestions to give to the food bank. And we sat and devised a plan, and how we could help those impacted by the fire. Ecole McTavish was still a very new school, opened just the September before the fire, and so this fire was the first truly impactful event to happen during the life of a new school. I think, in some ways, this fire and the subsequent outpouring of support from staff and students, and the way the school served as a temporary home for evacuees and firefighters, is what began to help the new school form a community. They were asked to pull together during a time of crisis, and pull together they did, to help others in their community, and to help those impacted by a fire that left damage they could see right from the school's front doors.
This week on Facebook a new page called "We Love Fort McMurray" appeared. It is a page dedicated to stories of why we love this place, and why we call it home. And one of the very first stories - and photos - immediately caught my eye, because it was from someone who lost virtually everything in the fire that the IJB and I remember so well. When I saw this story and photo I contacted the author and asked if I could share it here, and she graciously agreed. It is a deeply personal story, and she could have said no to me, but she said yes, and I am profoundly grateful.
I am grateful because while I have never experienced anything of this magnitude in my life in this community this story confirms what I know to be true about Fort McMurray. It speaks about how we care for each other, how we pull together in times of crisis, and how we form a community from people who come from different places and different backgrounds. It speaks to how we become a home.
This is the story of Joanne Leitch, and her family. This is her photo of the devastation the fire left behind. And this story, and so many others like it, is why I believe in this community and all the people who love it here and who will continue to build a community that is strong and giving and compassionate. Stories like this are why I do what I do, because I want the world to know who we truly are. I think on a cold night in February 2012 we showed who we truly are, and we have done it many times before and since. This is my Fort McMurray - and this is why I love it.
In November 2010, my husband and I came to Fort McMurray with our boys. Like everyone else, we tore ourselves away from our home, family and friends to find jobs. Literally gave it all up. Our first apartment was great and the landowners were/are amazing people/friends. Sadly the basement flooded and we had to move on. I was unhappy with our situation here and the sadness of being away from our loved ones was crippling. I kept asking myself, 'what are we doing here?'
February 5th, 2012, on Super Bowl Sunday and one year after we moved into the new apartment, there was an explosion in our building. In the extreme February cold, someone's BBQ blew up, and we lost that apartment too, although this time a lot of our belongings went with it. Extreme stress set in. A few days after the fire, they allowed us to go back for some items, and as I looked at our van packed with what little we had salvaged that day, I thought, well...do we say screw it and hit 63 and get the heck outta here or put our chin up and stay? I was very ready to call it quits but amazing things happened. First we got A LOT of very generous help from family back home, but what shocked me the most was how local Fort McMurray residents, who we have NEVER MET and who knew nothing about us, pitched in and donated so much to our family. Clothing, furniture, toys, kitchen housewares, gift cards from families of our school, bedding, air beds. The list goes on and on.
What also struck me was the night that everyone was evacuated. Ecole McTavish opened its doors as an emergency shelter, and neighbours who heard the blast came to the school with anything they could grab to help, including children's books, Timmies, and I will never forget the two girls who brought pet food and toys and copies of the Downhomer!!!
It really changed my perspective on this new town that we adopted, and reminded us that this isn't just a 'Boomtown' and it's not about every man for himself. Just look at what happens every time there is a tragedy or small disaster...this town comes together to help each other, or rally together to make a change little twinning the highway, or help other communities like Slave Lake. Everyone can complain about the traffic, and cold, and construction; but when people say extremely negative things I tell them our story, and then invite them to REALLY look at this town. If you really want to see the back bone of our community, get out and volunteer...you will meet the real faces of Fort McMurray!!!
***A special thank you to the Fort McMurray fire department who got everyone (pets included) out safely all while totally covered in icicles (a sight my family will never forget) and who still took time during their breaks to talk to the victims. You guys and gals are heros!!!