A slow-motion escape on the only road out of town. Ash drifting down onto car hoods. Peering through windshields as black smoke turns day into night. Growing thirsty as the air grows hotter. Inching past first responders fighting to keep open a flame-filled road.
Fort McMurray residents still see these images in our dreams, even though it’s been seven years since an out-of-control wildfire forced us to evacuate our city. The wildfire story continues long after the flames are out. Some of us joke that the aftermath is a slow burn.
It starts the day you come back. If your home is standing, you will be among the first to return. There is a celebration. There are flags waving and music playing as Red Cross volunteers hand out hundreds of re-entry kits with cleaning supplies. Everyone vows to rebuild, whatever it takes.
You walk through your front door to find everything permeated by smoke. Carpets, blankets, clothes, children’s toys. Power outages mean your refrigerator is full of rotting food. Long lines of trucks haul ruined appliances to the landfill. Hundreds of families join a waiting list at the furniture stores where staff scrub smoke from the walls. Grocery stores, pharmacies, schools and daycares — every workplace is cleaning up.
If you lost your home, you don’t return in the first wave. You need rental accommodation, which must be approved by your insurance company. There are delays as insurers process thousands of claims. There are no waving flags when you straggle into town weeks later. You need to clean your rental unit, but there is a shortage of cleaning supplies.
You find the Red Cross has cut back on support. Re-entry kits are long gone. The few Red Cross workers remaining tell you they are winding down assistance. Whenever you need help, you are referred to the Red Cross. You call many times and never speak to the same person twice. They promise to call back. They never do.
You find a contractor, also approved by your insurance company. Builders who have never been in your community do hard sells. You realize it may take two years — usually the deadline to settle an insurance claim — to rebuild. Everyone needs carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Everyone needs furnaces and bathtubs. They also need beds, sofas, soup spoons, dish towels and coffee pots. You need kids’ clothes and school supplies. You need pet leashes, snow tires, exercise equipment.
You need everything. So does everyone around you. It’s exhausting and depressing. You put one foot in front of the other. You learn everyone in town feels the same. You learn to lean on each other. Every day is group therapy day because the waiting list for mental-health support is long.
After a while, you don’t talk about it as much. A bad joke, a single word, a nod, an eye roll are all that is needed to convey meaning in the community of shared trauma. Gradually, you learn a wildfire makes itself known for years.
You fill up at the new gas station where the old one exploded. You see vacant lots in the middle of rebuilt subdivisions and wonder who lacked fire insurance. You find more bear traps on your street as more animals leave the devastated forest. You walk on community trails surrounded by burned-out stumps.
Every fire season, you pack a go bag. You watch the news and send a silent prayer for those about to learn what you already know.
Therese Greenwood’s memoir of the Fort McMurray wildfire, What You Take With You: Wildfire, Family and the Road Home, was published by University of Alberta Press