Canada 2017·Personal Essay

What the Fort Mac fire taught me about online fame — and basic Canadian decency

'I have no desire to relive my experience, but it humbled me in a way I am eternally grateful for.'

'I have no desire to relive my experience, but it humbled me in a way I am eternally grateful for.'

J.C. MacIsaac and his family were among those evacuated during the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016. (J.C. MacIsaac, Terry Reith/CBC)

On May 3, 2016, J.C. MacIsaac was one of approximately 90,000 people who were forced to flee their homes in Fort McMurray following one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history. Shortly after escaping with his family, MacIasaac, originally from Goshen, N.S., posted some thoughts to Facebook — which quickly went viral worldwide. One year later, he reflects on the experience.

As I left my home, for what I thought was the last time, I could see a wall of inferno devouring the last trees in the forest before it breached into our neighbourhood and began its devastation of my community of Abasand, one of the hardest hit areas of the wildfire. Eventually the flames would claim 50 per cent of the homes in Abasand, many visible from my front door.

Thousands of homes and buildings were lost in the 2016 wildfire. (Troy Palmer)

In my car I had clothes, a wedding album and a digital hard drive full of family photos. The only other personal items I made space for were my children's very favourite stuffed animals and a pair of high-heeled shoes my oldest daughter had received as a gift from my mother. She affectionately referred to these as her "clickity clacks" for the sound she made when she walked in them. Later when my wife and I explained our situation to Olivia, the fate of her clickity clacks was her very first question.

As a father, it felt like my only victory on a day of immense loss.

I did not sleep the night we left Fort McMurray. My mind raced obsessively, replaying the scenes over and over on a loop. My wife and children slept while I stared into the night. I needed an outlet. I took to Facebook and began to write. I still don't know what my intent was, but I needed to sort things through. Then I clicked post. In doing so, I exposed myself, and my family. My deepest wounds and fears were on display to the world. I shattered my own privacy, and once the first person clicked "share," I couldn't take it back.

While I while never let go of my reservations about that decision, it exposed me to the depths of human compassion and decency.

Fearing the worst

MacIsaac's two daughter's taking in summer in Nova Scotia while they were evacuated. (J.C. MacIsaac)

When I fled Fort McMurray with my family, I experienced some of the rawest and deepest emotions of my life. I was leaving behind an adopted hometown that had been the source of many of the things that I define myself by. I established my career here. I made friends here. I had personal milestones here. I met my wife here, our two beautiful children were born here and we didn't know what if anything would remain if and when we returned.

Not only did we leave with a belief that our home was no more, but early reports claimed the entire neighbourhood was a total loss. By preparing us for the worst possible outcome, officials had given us cause to believe our community was gone. I could only manage to believe the worst; hope was a luxury my mind couldn't afford, because I could not handle further heartbreak. Reports of what might be left of our city were all grim.

That afternoon, my daughter Emma and I had been stuck in traffic on the side of Beacon Hill as flames roared near us. Traffic that was crawling seemed to stop, with wildfire 20 feet to our right. If there is a more haunting feeling than the realization that you might hold your daughter while you both are consumed by the uncontrollable, I shudder to think of it and pray I never experience it. It was nearly nine months before I was able to let go of the guilt that I had almost gotten my baby girl killed. I continue to be grateful that at six weeks shy of her second birthday, she will never remember what I can never forget.

Community in a distracted world

I believe we live in a distracted world where no one notices the person next to them. But after I posted my thoughts to Facebook, my world stopped turning and everyone seemed to take notice. I received hundreds of messages of support. People could see themselves in our community, our time of need, and they wanted to help. Old friends, family and strangers alike offered to lend a hand — some going so far as to tell me they had space in their homes for us or had empty homes where we could stay for as long as we needed.

Mine is but one story, a drop in the bucket. There are 90,000 others. 90,000 experiences that I imagine prove how good people really are. - J.C. MacIsaac 

People offered money, clothes and countless other forms of support. I always referred them to the Red Cross, as my family had what we needed, but the gesture was never lost. What teared me up the most were all the offers to give my children everything they were now lacking, what I could not provide. I will never forget the pregnant waitress in Edmonton, nearing her due date, who gave my daughters two toy ponies that belonged to her daughters, because she knew my children had no toys. My girls still have those ponies and when they outgrow them I will keep them for the remainder of my natural life.  

The most inspiring moment I encountered, however, was a phone call from my dear friend Andrea. Our families have been friends since our oldest daughters were born about a week apart. When I learned their home had been taken I was crushed. I could not fathom those two beautiful girls not having a place to call home, even if I knew their needs were met. When I learned in the coming days that our home had miraculously been spared, I should have felt joy. But knowing the pain they were going through, I couldn't even muster relief. When my phone rang and Andrea answered, it was at a bleak moment for her family. And yet she told me she was worried for us, and wanted to help.

In a time of unimaginable pain and chaos, Anthony and Andrea wanted to care for my family and our needs. I still cannot process what kind of resolve and strength of character it takes to reach out to someone else at a moment like that. But rest assured, I have never gained so much respect for two people in my entire life.

Rebuilding in Fort McMurray: 'Houses are coming up from the ground this spring almost as quickly as they disappeared the last,' says J.C. MacIsaac. (J.C. MacIsaac)

The community today is a city in transition.  Many people are still in temporary accommodations while waiting to rebuild.  Some have yet to return, and many more never will.  It has fundamentally changed our community, but as we develop a new normal there seems to be hope and optimism in the air as houses are coming up from the ground this spring, almost as quickly as they disappeared the last.

Mine is but one story, a drop in the bucket. There are 90,000 others. 90,000 experiences that I imagine prove how good people really are. When people see people in need, they take notice, and our shared humanity is never more evident. I have no desire to relive my experience, but it humbled me in a way I am eternally grateful for. It exposed me to human kindness, compassion, and a selflessness I had previously believed the world to be lacking.

"That past is still within our memory. A time when neighbor helped neighbor sharing what little they had out of necessity, as well as decency." — Mary McAleese