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Four months after disaster

By: Calissa Reid

Just a few months ago, our province experienced the costliest disaster in Canadian history—the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Residents of the city had just a few short hours to leave their homes behind and evacuate, when they were finally able to return a month later, many people didn’t have homes to go home to.  I asked two friends to tell me about their experience throughout the evacuation, and to see how they’re feeling now.The impacts of the fire went well beyond the workplace, but their stories include important reminders of what to do during an emergency, at work and at home.

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The sky was black with smoke and lit up with flames in Thickwood heights

Karli, Lab tech
Lives in Thickwood Heights
Evacuated for 30 days

I was in a meeting when my boss got a phone call from his wife. She told him that the fire had jumped the river and was moving towards the other side of town. Once I heard the fire was by my neighbourhood I knew I needed to get home.

When I got to my car it was covered with little bits of ash and burnt pine needles. I found out later on that an e-mail went out about 30 minutes after I left work that everyone could go home because of the fire.

I was lucky because I was supposed to be heading on vacation in a few days, so I had a bag full of belongings already packed. I was home for about 20 minutes when my neighborhood was placed under mandatory evacuation.

I headed out of the city around 5 p.m., and after waiting around 45 minutes to grab fuel my family and I made it to Lac La Biche around 11:30 that night.

I spent the next month moving between Lac La Biche, Edmonton and Manitoba.

After the evacuation was lifted, going back to work was complicated—there was a lot of damage from the smoke and power loss.  There were a lot of problems resulting from being away for such a long time, but we’ve worked together and it’s getting back to normal now.

Now that I’m home I realize how important it is to stay calm in a situation; It’s better to stay calm—you can figure out the little things when you have a clear mind.

Chelsey, Secretary
Lost her home in Abasand, and has now moved to Kamloops
Evacuated for 41 days

I had been working, and it seemed like a regular day until lunch time. I was watching the smoke clouds growing larger and larger from my office when I got a text message from my friend with pictures of my neighborhood on fire; It was terrifying.

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A harrowing view from Chelsey’s office before she left work.

Around 1:40 I was able to go home and meet up with my boyfriend. In the 15 minutes it took me to drive home, the evacuation for Abasand had changed from voluntary to mandatory; we no longer had a choice to leave, we had to go.

Even though we had been told the day before to pack a bag, we didn’t have anything ready. I honestly believed if we were evacuated, we would be able to return the next day.  I left important things behind because I didn’t think we’d need them.

We were low on gas, but we decided we would drive until there was nothing left. It normally takes us fifteen minutes to drive through town—today it took three hours. I saw neighborhoods, restaurants and hotels that were burnt to the ground. I was so appreciative and grateful for all the officers standing with masks on and a water bottle in hand, as we were fleeing they stood in position, directing and pointing to tell us where to go.  After 15 long hours in the car with very little sleep we made it to Edmonton.

I went back to work on June 20, but I only worked for three days before I went on stress leave. It was hard to focus on work when my home was five minutes away in ashes. It felt like I needed to come back home ready to conquer the world, and I wasn’t ready. I had to deal with the emotions from losing everything. I decided to leave my job and move out of town. I needed a fresh start.

When the fire started I told myself I would take a few sentimental things, but in the moment I just grabbed what I could and ran. I may have lost my home and belongings, but I am safe, as are my friends and family. I feel unexplainable gratitude for that, and for the officers, firemen and volunteers who did everything they could to help.

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