Stories from Fort McMurray

A series of short stories compiled by Adam Fearnall, Academy12 for FuseSocial

When crisis strikes you react — instinct takes over. You rely on everything that you’ve learned, everything that you’ve experienced, and everything that you are to get you through the moment.

From May 24th — May 27th I was given the unique privilege of listening to ‘reaction’ stories from the Fort McMurray fires. Each person is different and each person shares somewhat differently, but I consistently found that people wanted to talk about what it was like, how it felt, or what their next steps were.

Before putting together these stories I thought a lot about what I’d want to read if someone was writing about my community. I thought about what would be most useful to me as I returned to a place that I’d left weeks ago. I knew immediately that I had no right to analyze, no right to judge, and that doing so would do no good.

That’s why what follows is something that I’ll call amplification. It’s a series of short ‘stories’ based on the words of people who I spoke to about the evacuation, the fire, and the road back to the community. It isn’t an authoritative account of every reaction or every story, but it is a reminder of the wisdom that people from Fort McMurray hold in their hearts and minds.

It’s a reminder to listen to the voices of the people who have lived through the fire. What makes sense to them might not make sense to everyone else, but deep in their complex thoughts and ideas are many of the answers to the questions that Fort McMurray will ask in the days to come.

These stories are about taking the time to listen to the wisdom of those of you who have come through the fire. They’re about amplifying the wisdom of the Fort McMurray crowd at the right time. They’re about hearing voices from your home.

If I have one wish for these stories, it’s that they serve as a touchstone for you to think about what it felt like in the days before you returned to Fort McMurray — some lessons seemed unnaturally clear and certain paths seemed to lead in the right directions. Circumstances change and life gets complicated, but I hope that you’ll be willing to revisit these stories — weeks, months, and years from now — because I think that they might remind you of some things that you don’t want to forget.

How to Read These Stories

The first thing I want to issue is a ‘disclaimer’. The information captured in these stories isn’t necessarily 100% ‘true’ because memories are funny things and people recall different versions of events. My hope is that the essence of the story is what you take away. I want to show you the process of how these stories came together, so you’re going to see three different headings throughout this document:

The Story. I combined statements and questions that I observed while in Edmonton into short 3–5 sentence ‘stories’ to illustrate the major themes.
The Cue. This is the quote or thought that inspired the story. Sometimes these are direct quotes and sometimes they’re almost direct quotations.
The Reminder. In the spirit of a 140 character world, here is a 140 character expression that can serve as a quick reminder of something to keep in mind when at work, at home, or whenever you need one.

The Story. The Other Side of Kindness
The Cue. To be on the other side of this is difficult; a big dose of humble.”
Fort McMurray is a giving community. We make the highest donations per capita to the United Way and raised money for a firefighter who needed experimental treatment in Maryland. In Fort McMurray, “we’re big donators.” When we evacuated we had to get used to being on the other side of kindness. We picked up the debit cards that we didn’t really need, but actually kind of did. We accepted the free soccer registration for my son, the $250 Walmart gift card, the free cab rides, and the money from the distant relative. It was all meaningful, but it’s so hard to be on the other side.
The Reminder. Asking for help is hard, accepting it is harder. We want to get back to giving, but can’t forget the strength it takes to ask & to receive.

The Story. Everyone Has An Evacuation Story
The Cue. “You grab your stuff and leave and hope for the best.”
No one will forget the day that we evacuated Fort McMurray. We grabbed our badminton rackets, wedding clothes, pasta sauces, every pair of wool socks and left. We jumped onto buses and into car after car. We drove for hours. We registered at evacuation sites and immediately started to volunteer. We looked after 12 children until we could find parents to love them. “I know people that evacuated twice, we have to be mindful of the fact that these people will be back on campus and in our community and will need to take care of themselves.” We all have a story. Each one is different. Each one matters.
The Reminder. We all left Fort McMurray differently. Each of our stories matters equally. Let’s make space to share and to understand each other.

The Story. Making It Up
The Cue. “I forgot some of the paperwork.”
As we left Fort McMurray a lot of us were making things up. We followed the rules the best that we could, but sometimes we just needed to get things done. “People were making decisions outside of the paperwork,” but they were doing it because we had to get through the worst. We can be flexible with ‘the way that things are done’ when we get back. We can work together.
The Reminder. It’s ok to put the paperwork aside. Processes are great, but sometimes the on-paper approach doesn’t work. We can change what’s on the page.

The Story. Personal Shit
The Cue. “We want normalcy. We want to go back to our worst day before the fire. I want to go back to that Sunday when we were picking up dog shit.”
Right now “there are people who are just processing. We aren’t able to think of higher order things because we are still thinking about shelter.” We’ve been everywhere in the last few weeks: campers by the lake, rental houses in Edmonton, with relatives who remind us of old socks, and back to Newfoundland. We’ve got a lot of things to figure out before we can really start to think about ‘work’. For the first two weeks (after the fire) we couldn’t really work. We needed to look after ourselves and look after our families — especially our kids.
The Reminder. It’s hard to work when your life is chaos. People are people first & employees second. Taking care of the person takes care of the employee.

The Story. The Keyano Experience
The Cue. “Right from our campus you’ll see where the fires came down.”
During the fire the College lost the ability to contact its students and its staff, but it’s doing the best that it can to support its community. International Students wonder if their visas will be impacted if they can’t go back to Keyano. Students wonder about marks, next year’s schedule, and how to pay for school without their Fort McMurray summer jobs. The Students’ Association wonders what enrolment will be like — like the College, they need to know numbers to make a budget. There’s a lot of unknown.
Before the fire we believed that overall well-being was important — you can’t be a good student without being ‘well’ overall. We’re going to keep our campus healthy and students can help keep Fort McMurray healthy. If we serve our students, they will serve us.
The Reminder. When the going gets tough, ask yourself, “Are we’re doing a good job of keeping our community ‘well’?”

The Story. Will I Come Back?
The Cue. I love Fort McMurray but should I stay or should I go?”
Some of us were struggling before the fire. The economy wasn’t great, we didn’t have the jobs that we once did, but we were making it work. We were starting to think about moving before the fire, so we might not end up going back. My family likes where we are now. My kids are settled, so we’ll go back, assess and think about going back after school is over.
The Reminder. Everyone won’t come back to FM to stay. This will be hard for our organizations. We’re going to take some punches. Try to roll with them.

The Story. Not Yet. Right Now.
The Cue. “Don’t talk to me about moving back yet.”
Some of us want to go back to Fort McMurray but we all have different feelings about when the right time to return is. “Some people don’t really know what they need, but at the end of the day it comes down to stability, feeling safe, and believe that you are going back to something.” One of the challenges with going back now is that we’re not really ready to come back. “We don’t want to come back with respirators, 14 tanks of water, and a closed Walmart. It almost feels like we’re being rushed back into the community.”
“Emotionally we’re not ready to go back full-time.” We don’t really know what we’re coming back to. How is everything? The pictures on social media made you feel like the whole city was gone — is it? We didn’t want to leave and we want to go back right now, but maybe not yet?
The Reminder. Coming back was always going to be hard. Let’s be patient with each other while we adjust. We probably can’t hit the ground running.

The Story. We Liked It Before
The Cue. “[Fort McMurray] is one of the only small towns with people from all over the world…you figure out how to be inclusive and accepting.”
We’re missing our friends and the things that we like to do. We’re missing part-time jobs, sports, babysitting, and our forest. A lot of us loved growing up in Fort McMurray. You know exactly where you’re going and exactly how to get there. It was intuitive. To us Fort McMurray is more than a work town. It’s a place where you can still get time off work to go to hockey practice. “It’s always going to be before the fire and after the fire,” but we liked it here before.
The Reminder. Let go of what we have to, protect what we can, and create what we want to. Fort McMurray is us.

The Story. Our Forest is Gone
The Cue. “Our forest is torched; all that green that we’re used to seeing in the summer is black right now.”
There is a relationship between Fort McMurray and the forest. The trees mattered to us and we loved to wander along the trails. A lot of that is gone now. It’s hard to think about Fort McMurray without the forests. It’ll take some time to get used to life without the forest.
The Reminder. We’re connected to the land and we won’t be fully healed until the land has started to come back. We need to let her to heal.

The Story. People Need to Talk
The Cue. “There’s going to be that pit; and emotional side — people are going to need a way to express that in a non-negative way.”
When we gathered in Edmonton it was obvious that people needed a space to talk, a space to reconnect. We are going to need places to laugh, cry, and celebrate what we’re seeing and experiencing as we come back. “Lots of people don’t want to reach out to a counsellor in a traditional sense,” so we’re going to have to come up with ways of supporting these people. We’re going to have to pay attention to this for a long time.
The Reminder. Creating time and space to reflect when there is chaos and uncertainty around is hard. We need to make sure that we do it.

The Story. Let the Walls Stay Down
The Cue. The people who come back to Fort McMurray are going to be the people who have a genuine interest in rebuilding it. We’re going to come back as family and friends. There is no excuse not to have a common interest anymore.”
Before the fire we all had our disagreements. There were times when we might have squabbled over a name on a plaque or the validity of someone’s experience. The fire stripped us raw and showed our true humanity to each other. Let’s make sure that we do something substantial and avoid getting caught up in getting our piece of the pie. Let’s keep doing the things that we’re best at, “make sure you’re the right person for the job” and find ways to work as a collective to fill the gaps in the community.
The Reminder. No matter what the mission of the organization, we all have to get the community through and pull in the same direction going forward.

The Story. Be Part of What Happens
The Cue. “I did that, I helped fix that, it was me too.”
We all want to protect our children. We want to make it as easy as possible for them to cope with the trauma of the last few months. Part of doing that is to “watch to make sure that ‘youth’ are there as a conversation — not just what are we going to do for the youth, how we are we going to involve them.” We have a chance to give kids and other unsung heroes of our community the chance to say, “just because I’m not part of the old boys club doesn’t mean that I can’t have an impact…I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have anything to say.”
The Reminder. Fort McMurray’s children & youth don’t just want things to happen to them, they want to be active participants in what happens next.

The Story. Am I Still Relevant?
The Cue. “Is my business relevant to the future of Fort McMurray?”
A lot of our businesses and organizations were started because people had a particular skill. We’re not necessarily business people by nature. It’s hard to know how relevant certain businesses are going to be to the future of the community. Many of us will be saying, ‘I have skills, but my skills might not be as needed now as they were before the fire.’ We might not need these businesses right now, but we might need the people, the skills, and the business in the future. “Don’t be afraid to move your staff around” and “use your connections” to try to find ways to keep skilled people here.
The Reminder. There are lots of skilled people in Fort McMurray and many will need help keeping business alive. Can the social profits help?