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What ‘Fort McMurray Strong’ means to me

Sept 22, 2016

Some dates stick in your mind. Nov. 16 was the day I found out I got the maintenance manager job up in Fort McMurray. Dec. 21 was the day my husband and I travelled up there (first time for both of us) to house-hunt.

I remember feeling faintly queasy about the constant twilight. The tires of our rental car threw up clumps of dirty snow in the monochromatic cold as we schlepped from one 1980s-era house to another. I wish I could tell you the northern lights shone down in a river of colour, but … not so much. The stars were bright and beautiful, precise in a way I had never seen in Calgary, but we were definitely thinking it might have been smarter to visit the city before committing to the job.

We finally visited a house that backs onto the Birchwood Trail system, a cute, recently renovated bungalow with a wood stove in the living room and another in the kitchen, and a view out back of endless, towering forest. Our perfect cabin in the northern woods. On Jan. 6, the moving truck came, and on Jan. 7, we arrived at our new front door.

The mechanics of the next few weeks were the constant learning and feeling of displacement common to all people who move. For weeks, I’d open every cupboard door in the kitchen every time I needed a plate. We explored the extensive cross-country-ski network and fell in love with Vista Ridge, the local ski hill. My kids gained an independence they never had in Calgary, able to go visit new friends on the block by themselves. I missed my mom, though, and cried after talking to people at home. But I enjoyed my new job, and slowly, as the snow began to melt and the sun began spending more time above the horizon, Fort McMurray became home.

The morning of May 3, I headed out to catch my bus, relieved to see that the heavy smoke that had been building from a fire near town had cleared overnight and the day dawned without the ancestral warning smell of fire in the air. At my work site, 75 kilometres north of town, the morning started normally enough, but around noon I started hearing snippets of talk in the hallways. Parts of Fort Mac were being evacuated.

I called Andrew. He had the kids and a full tank of gas, and would meet me at my boss’s house in the northern part of town. As I crested the hill into town in my boss’s truck, it was a nightmare of red and black. We’d seen the massive plumes of smoke, but now the intensity and span of the fire became obvious. I had never in my life had such crystal clarity on what’s important. I wanted my kids, my husband and to get the hell out of there. Everything in my house could burn. I needed my people.

We pulled up and I paced the yard, waiting for Andrew. Traffic was building and so was tension. When our Suburban rounded the corner, I felt a snap like a rubber band in my chest from the fear that had been building. At least we would be together from here.

We couldn’t go south any more, the road was closed. As we headed north, it finally occurred to me to ask why on earth Andrew had decided to pack our 18-foot canoe on the roof. My incredibly practical and remarkably survivalist husband had packed not only the canoe, but also his rifle, a 10-pound bag of potatoes and a chainsaw. He figured that if the traffic got so bad that we couldn’t get through, we could take the river to Fort Chipewyan (about a week’s paddle) and survive by hunting and eating the potatoes. Our wedding photos and family mementos were still at the house. But I must admit, his logic has more currency in a crisis than my sentimentality.

Thanks to the humanitarian effort deployed by the local oil sand producers, we were on a flight to Calgary that same evening, my kids with no shoes (he remembered the chainsaw, but not their shoes?), to meet our relieved family.

June 1 was the first day I could go home under the re-entry plan for Fort McMurray. Walking up my steps, putting the key in and opening that door – I can’t describe the feeling. There is a strange, deep, silent calm about home. I’m not sure anyone feels it until they’ve closed their door and walked away from the place where they’ve planted their heart without knowing if they can ever come back.

It’s September, and I get a lot of questions about what Fort Mac is like now – if it’s changed. Of course it has. But so have I, and so has every person affected by this event. Fort McMurray Strong is a phrase that has gained immense popularity. But the word “strong” resonates in my bones in a way it never did before when I look at my neighbours. Strong isn’t about facing crisis and coming through. Strong is about knowing the fire and choosing to come back anyway. It’s about knowing that recovery will be years and years in the making. Strong is every family, every neighbour, who hugs a bit longer now because of that glimpse of insight when the fire threatened to strip us bare.

I’m again looking ahead to Jan. 7, our one-year year anniversary of moving to Fort McMurray. I’m excited to strap on our skis and explore the new landscape in the Birchwood Trails. But I’m most excited to be cozy in our little cabin in the northern woods, our stoves insulating us from the crazy cold and deep stillness, and – maybe this time – seeing the coloured ribbon of the northern lights streaming across the sky.

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