Walking On Ashes: Thoughts After the Fort McMurray Fire

Like the rest of Lac La Biche, I flew into action once the mandatory evacuation notice was declared over Fort McMurray. I knew enough food for everyone was going to be an immediate concern. I made phone calls; I returned phone calls; I sent emails; I responded to emails; I rubbed my eyes, just like everyone else, and kept going.

No one could believe what was happening.

Everyone was dumb with shock.

Sitting in my office, I heard horror stories about the slow caravan through hell. One family lost communication with their adult daughter who was nine months pregnant; another family feared being unable to escape the blaze because their tires were melting on the pavement; and yet another described massive arches of flames licking upwards over the highway, with thousands of people stuck in their vehicles beneath.

Their shock was palpable. Our small town of thirty-five hundred nearly quadrupled in size in one day. An official emergency evacuation station was set up at the local community centre, and all hands pitched in. People drove up and down Highways 63 and 881 with clean water and food, tanks of free fuel, rides for people whose vehicles had broken down, and basic first aid assistance. In a worst-case scenario, the best of humanity shone through.

The shock began to wear off though.

As shock released its grip on most people, reality began to sink in: “We’ve lost everything.”

Even for people who didn’t lose their homes, living through one of the greatest natural disasters in Canadian history left burn scars. Trauma brought with it nightmares, family strife, anxiety, and depression. Many people lost their jobs and are still to this day looking for employment.

How do we put words to The Beast?

It seemed to me that the world was in ashes.

Even when it was reported that less of Fort McMurray had been destroyed than what was previously estimated, it still felt like the world had burned down to the ground. What were we to say? What were we to do?

All that was left were damp ashes.

As my world began to right itself once more – back to its new normal-not-normal – I began to experience a strange thing: in the world trying to return to some semblance of balance, I felt my own anxiety increase. It was as if I was walking on damp ashes. The hundreds of thousands of tons of water had flooded the Beast, but now I was treading on what was left behind and it felt both charred and muddy. It reeked of smoke. I was walking on people’s stories, but not just the stories of evacuees.

Holding space for the stories coming out of Fort McMurray was a strangely holy act. There were no words to bring healing for the many thousands who had suffered grief and loss. The silence of God was as much a balm as gift cards, food, and clothing. But as the shock wore off for other people too, more stories began to fill that holy space. Timidly and often in shame, people would whisper:

“I got laid off…”

“I have to get away from my husband…”

“I’m struggling with depression and I can’t walk around a supermarket…”

“We have no food…”

This holy space not only began to hold space for evacuees, but for the many others affected by life’s other curveballs. Yet because of the fire, many people who were not directly affected by The Beast had been inadvertently shamed into silence. In my oddly shaped food bank office, they would quietly confess that family members, friends and neighbors had clucked their tongues and said:

“Be grateful. At least your house didn’t burn down like the ones in Fort McMurray.”

And the walking upon damp ashes suddenly became more anxious and more holy. 

The folks not affected by The Beast had come to believe that their own troubles were not worth being considered as burdens. Despite good intentions, the impact was to force many people to feel like that had to suffer in silence. It took great courage to reveal their fear to me (or anyone) and I sat in awe of their pain and of their choice to take a chance sharing their private grief.

Our community rallied around the evacuation in beautiful Sermon-on-the-Mount fashion. All were welcome, all were fed, and all were assured we were there to weep and laugh alongside with the evacuees. And truly I don’t believe we forgot about our own locals’ struggles. This anxious holy space only became apparent to me two or three weeks after the evacuation happened when people hesitantly began to share, in tears, how guilty they felt for suffering with troubles other than The Beast.

How could I walk on the remains of other people’s stories? The damage was done. The pain was already underfoot. I could only being doing more damage by continuing on foot. The devastation was vast and seemed to never end.

Yet this was precisely why this vast devastated landscape had to be held open as holy space. Christ was here – in the ashes, in the smoke, in the floodsAnd his presence was not cornered to the Wood Buffalo region alone. Life knows no timely schedule about who will suffer first, recover, and then allow for the next person to suffer. A fire happens here, while a suicide happens there, and a car accident occurs right on its heels, and a job loss follows immediately afterwards.

My job came down to all of two words as I walked this burned holy space, the ashes made of the lives of many people from many places:

“I’m listening…”

  • This was amazing. I always say pain is pain and all pain is significant and worth recognizing. It makes sense that people would hide their pain and yet it so significant and needs to come out. I know as I walked through some difficult times those around me became silent about their pain which actually intensified mine. It made it seem as though no one else had any problems. As I encouraged others to share their pain it made me feel not so alone.