I watched through the large plate glass windows as the wildfire in Fort McMurray grew in size and intensity. All my co-workers were getting antsy and the tension was palatable. Discussions invariably were centred on the fire and the likelihood the city would have to be evacuated. It seemed surreal – impossible to wrap one’s mind around. As one co-worker remarked, “there is only one way in and out of the city, how will they ever get everyone out?” It was a daunting thought.
After work we drove home watching worriedly while the flame licked the treetops and smoke partially hid the hills. Two subdivisions had already been evacuated. Once home my phone was constantly ringing, my son urging us to get out of town NOW! But my daughter was still at work and waiting to receive direction from her district manager – we could not leave until she was home. In between fielding phone calls from my son and from my daughter I was flinging items into a small bag. We would leave but the fire was in another part of town – not near our location at that time. We decided we would likely be back home the next day – who knew?
We rent a lovely basement apartment in the city from people we know. We were also talking with them trying to make a decision. We had nowhere to go – all our closest relatives also lived in Fort Mac. Our friend and landlady was quick to offer us the use of their 5th wheel camper. We talked with her and her husband as she swept the thick ash from the deck. After discussing it we decided to take them up on their kind offer and follow them to Anzac.
After the stress of a hazardous drive through fire and smoke we arrived in Anzac. We headed into town for much-needed food and supplies. We went to the local pizza place and while waiting for our order I chatted with another woman who was with her very pregnant daughter. She told me they would have to sleep in their van and joked about possibly having to deliver her grandchild. Many were in the same boat – nowhere to go and having to sleep in their vehicles. I felt very fortunate and grateful to have the use of the camper. Initially those people who were without transportation were gathered at MacDonald Island, a large facility in the city. (The library where I work is also housed there). These evacuees would eventually be bused north of the city to work camps in the oilsands. I could not help but think of the homeless – the people who had no home to call their own in the city. We were now technically homeless as well.
We spent an uneasy night and slept little. The next morning we were hearing more bad news – the fire might be headed our way and though we were 20-25 km from the city felt uneasy as the wind continued to change direction and seemed to be driving the fire our way. There were about 25 people with us in Anzac, friends and relations of our friends and cell phones were constantly in use as people tried to make a decision about where to go next. When one of the men noticed ashes falling in the back of the yard the question was answered – we were getting out of Dodge.
We had elected to stay with our friends in Anzac while our son, his wife, and our daughter decided to go south to Edmonton the previous evening. Our truck had a mechanical issue, which we had planned to get fixed later in the week – the fire erupted before we could get that done, so we were stuck – my son’s car was too small to transport us all and once again our friends came to our rescue. Jumping aboard their pick-up truck we all headed down the highway to a campground that would be our new sanctuary. Within hours we would have to pack up and run again. News reports told us the fire had reached Anzac and was burning at an incredible speed and once again heading our way. We had hoped to meet our son in Lac le Biche, but rumour had it that a horrible accident on the highway had ignited yet another fire. We called our son to tell him to turn back to Edmonton, we could not get through. The highway was closed. We worried about getting caught between two fires with no escape route. Fortunately the fire caused by the accident was quickly extinguished. In the meanwhile we pulled over in the small community of Boyles to rest for the remainder of the night.
The following morning we were able to get back on the highway to meet our son and for our friends to continue their journey to meet family members in a campground outside Edmonton. Our family was fortunate. Friends of my daughter-in-laws opened their summer home to us and two days after leaving Fort McMurray we gratefully took possession of a little piece of heaven.
I cannot help but think of all the people who are homeless year-round and at the mercy of the elements. I have always had deep sympathy for these people. I have never felt so vulnerable in my life as I felt knowing I could not go home. I am deeply grateful to be sitting here writing this blog and hoping this experience of temporary homelessness will bring our community closer together and foster a spirit of deeper compassion for those who have no home to call their own, whatever the underlying causes.