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.

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