a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past,
typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.
Friday, June 3rd: Re-entry day reflection
We're exhausted. But relieved. And grateful.
It was a beautiful drive to Fort McMurray from Edmonton early yesterday morning. Dew kissed ground and low lying mist, with a sky reflecting neon pink in the clouds before the sun rose... what a peaceful way to start a special day.
Every Fort McMurray road sign caused a lump in my throat - something so familiar, yet we have been prevented from travelling up the highway for a month now. Signs directing us to our city were a beautiful sight. Being a spectator to the media's take on our community has been difficult and there was relief in being allowed to finally follow these signs to our home.
Traffic was not an issue and we were especially grateful for a twinned Highway 63. We expected bumper-to-bumper traffic and long travel times but that wasn't the case. As we got closer to the city, not far from Stony Mountain Road, we were hit with the sight of a charred landscape and the acrid smell of smoke all at once. There wasn't any visible smoke in the area but the smell was undeniable – and unforgettable.
Welcome home signs were seemingly strategically placed to encourage us at the exact moments we felt our hearts sink. "We Will Rebuild" reassured us that we could bravely continue on. On our right, the turnoff to Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation, and Gregoire Lake Estates, and further up, the airport turnoff and Saprae Creek – areas that are completely out of view but battled the blaze and experienced devastation too. It was almost haunting to think about what lies beyond those turnoffs. And then the city limits... a sign changed to read Welcome Home Fort McMurray. A month ago we drove past these very same landmarks, many of which were smouldering, spot fires still burning. Dense smoke had filled the car, making it hard to breathe. It seemed like an apocalyptic scene from a movie. But now, in the sunlight and the smoke having cleared, we could see the aftermath clearly. It all became real - very quickly.
The word I think I have used most frequently since the evacuation is "surreal". And although it still feels like it has to be a nightmare that we will wake up from, there was no denying the destruction we could clearly see along the highway. Prairie Creek and Gregoire on our right and the Metis office and Centennial RV Park on our left - it was hard to know where to look - familiar landmarks yet so scarred - some spared, others destroyed.
The destruction of Beaconhill was hidden from our sight - with barricades on the berm reminding us that there was so much more destruction to come. I strained to clarify that, indeed, the fire consumed even the lamps on the tops of the streetlights. The moment that we began to descend into the valley, where we normally see historic Waterways, it was no longer surreal. We could see it in all its devastating horror. I gasped at the sight. There are no images, no photographs, and no aerial views that compare to seeing the destruction in person.
But quickly, tears of heartache turned into tears of gratitude as Kevin directed my attention to what was in front of us. With flags raised on their truck ladders, emergency responders were standing on the bridge, waving and welcoming us home. Another perfect placement of encouragement and hope, shifting our gaze to what lies ahead. The reality of what was done by these brave men and women is staggering - especially as we see firsthand the blackened evidence of how the fire roared down the end of Beaconhill but did not consume all of Grayling Terrace. On our right, a section of homes destroyed in a seemingly random attack, where the fire must have leapt across the highway. Yet, the rest of downtown remained intact. What these heroes must have seen and have gone through in those initial days - the choices and sacrifices they made… it chills me to the bone.
We drove by a fairly quiet downtown – certainly not as eerie as the morning after the initial evacuation, as we left our overnight safe haven at a Northern work camp – but a Tim Horton’s with no lineup certainly signalled that something was not as it should be. Restoration company trucks were backed up at business doorways, starting their busy cleanup work. Traffic was light but every regular vehicle was a sign that the city was coming to life again.
On the left, the charred hillside warned of the devastation and danger beyond our view in Abasand, with police and security checkpoints blocking access up the hill. As we headed across the bridge, the view all around the river valley was astonishing. It was here that we could see how the city was surrounded in flames – how it had the power to leap over the Athabasca river. Entire sections were black and brown where it would normally be full of newly emerged buds on trembling aspen, white birch and balsam poplar trees. Yet, there were still patches of vibrant green, incredulously spared by the fire’s insatiable appetite. This green, a powerful metaphor for hope, resilience and renewal, was evident all throughout the city. Hillsides that had only recently been black were now green with new shoots. And even though the land was still so very dry, this new life seemed almost defiant in its ability to grow in these conditions.
We passed the turnoff to Thickwood, Dickensfield and Wood Buffalo, residents in that zone having to wait for their turn to come home the next day. Yet there were many here that would have to wait much longer as their homes have been destroyed. Nearly every neighbourhood has experienced loss and destruction. It's hard to fathom.
And then, finally, we reached the exit that would lead us home. Fire breaks tugged at my heart as familiar stands of trees had been bulldozed to protect as much as they could. That perpetual lump in my throat grew larger as we viewed evidence of the hasty evacuation, with abandoned vehicles still scattered on Confederation Way. Piled up tree trunks, removed from the Birchwood Trails, made me cringe and look away. Reminders everywhere of all the fire and its aftermath had taken – and will continue – to take from us.
Our first stop before heading home was a welcome centre, set-up in a school. Here we checked in with the Red Cross, signed up for ATCO to restore our gas service and asked some questions. It was frustrating to have smiling faces with large signs inviting us to inquire within, yet to discover they knew less than we did. And it was odd to be receiving service from people who didn’t know our community, who mispronounced familiar names of streets and areas as they tried to direct us elsewhere for answers. We still felt like evacuees – home, yet in a strange place.
Home, sweet, home. As we drove the familiar route back to our house, the anticipation was palpable - excited but nervous to see things for ourselves. A number of people were already busy at work in their homes within our neighbourhood, taped up fridges and full garbage bins arranged intermittently along the street. I checked the mailbox and pulled out a lone bill, covered in ash, stinking of smoke. With the smoke damage in our home we could not stay, only visiting long enough to assess the state of things, mow the lawn, wave at the occasional neighbour who had also arrived, and gather a few belongings we wished we had packed for the evacuation. What a strange feeling to be so homesick yet have to leave once again, and with no timeline or idea of when things would be safe enough to return home for good. But we are grateful - so very grateful to have a community to return to.
Update: June 15, 2016
We have made two more trips back up the highway to Fort McMurray since our re-entry day, and each time the city is looking increasingly alive. Despite the desire for normalcy, we know that a new normal has to be our aspiration, navigating through all these changes to find a routine that fits our new reality. Before we began to see burned forest leading into the municipality, signage reminds us to take care of our mental health and that counselling help is available. Even though we’ve already been through the city, those signs still make me brace for seeing it all again. And each time we drive by, more of the destroyed forest has been bulldozed, machinery working away to clean things up.
The city is full of visitors and restoration companies galore, with lots of temporary offices set up to meet the extraordinary demands. The Tim’s lineup is once again long, but with the drive-through closed you can see the line-up winding its way through the store. Restaurants and businesses are opening up and the familiar crowds at hardware stores make it clear that we are all itching to get things in order again - pursuing a new normal...
Helicopters still frequent the skies overhead, a familiar sight but with a noted increased presence. And homes that have been destroyed now have an unsettling whitish grey coating sprayed over them, called tacifier. We wonder about the long and short-term health of our community as we drive by. Some of the destruction is easily within view, like it is in Parsons Creek, as families were allowed to return to their standing homes even when everything is gone across the street. Rubicon crews were set up to sift through the debris, creating a cloud of ash and soot around them. Everything is not normal. Everything is not alright. Yet amazingly, in the middle of all of this chaos and heartbreak, there is a beautiful region, still nestled in the boreal forest, welcoming us back.
These are all signs of a community in transition – in recovery – yet still in the midst of crisis. Not everyone has been welcomed home. And too many have no house to return to. I'm still mourning, and suspect I will for quite some time, elements of the way things were in my beloved Northern community - the way life looked before this catastrophe. So much has changed and I'm feeling rather nostalgic. But I don't hang out in this wistful place for long. It's time to press on and dream new dreams, looking for blessings and beauty in the middle of it all. We cling to hope and will continue to look for every indication that we will be resilient and persevere, coming out of this better than we ever were.