Ottawa·Point of View

A letter to the people of fire-torn Fort McMurray, past and present

CBC Ottawa reporter Kristy Nease, who grew up in Fort McMurray, reflects on the wildfire threatening to destroy the city.
People gather for gas being handed out at a rest stop near Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday. Raging forest fires whipped up by shifting winds sliced through the middle of the remote oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing in both directions and prompting the evacuation of the entire city. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Of all the horrifying images of the burning city I grew up in, what haunts me most are the thousands of cars and trucks lined up in the darkness, engines struggling in the black smoke, tens of thousands of people leaving all at once, hoping like hell the death highway would not fail them.

Streams of red sparks sweeping across narrow Highway 63 and under the tires, bright red and orange and yellow walls of flaming, smoking boreal forest on either side.

One road in and the same road out — Alberta's killer highway, we always called it, as it is known.

The usefulness of pieces like this — ex-residents with tenuous ties to tragedy sharing their thoughts and memories — evades me somewhat even now as I write.

Friends and loved ones and colleagues ask if I'm doing all right. I am, and I confess I'm feeling a hot kind of shame at even being asked.

Thirteen trailers just blocks away from the one I grew up in, on the north side of town in a neighbourhood called Timberlea, are gone. Other homes burn there, too. To the south it's much worse: almost all of Waterways — rich with the city's history, nestled against the Clearwater River — is destroyed. Beacon Hill and Abasand have suffered serious damage.

As I write this, the menace that somehow jumped the river and the highway, succeeding where so many fires before it had failed, has grown into a 85,000-hectare monster that's threatening to destroy what's left, and other communities besides.

I count the city blocks. I look at Westwood Community High School. I want to see the blue and grey mobile home my sister, mother and I shared, but Google Streetview has never been there. I'm distracted. I stay up too late, knowing it's pointless to do so, talking with my sister, checking the Facebook pages of people I haven't spoken to in a decade or more, of relatives my only connection to now is my mother's maiden name alone.

Do I have any right to the connection I'm feeling now, watching pictures of burned-out trucks and husks of homes float by on the screens above my desk?

Was Fort McMurray ever home?

Like everything, I suppose, it's complicated.

For me and others I knew in the 1990s, Fort McMurray was a good place to grow up and it was a bad place to grow up.

The best, most vivid memories I have are of nature: racing a bicycle down the hill and off the dock and into the Snye, where the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers meet, at dusk in the pouring rain of an electrical storm; the way the aspen and spruce and birch near Clearwater School smelled when flood waters receded; the green-looking wave of a cold front I watched sweep by one day, calm winds one second, hail and fences coming down in the trailer court the next; the smoke that sometimes blew in and stung our eyes and throats in wildfire season.

But it was tough to be a girl there, tougher still to be a teen girl, in a city full of workers supporting families living elsewhere, where the men far outnumbered the women, where I found it hard to feel safe, where I felt like I never quite belonged.

I always intended to leave Fort McMurray. My family moved there when I was around six and I left at 18, right out of high school, like a lot of kids — some of whom I imagine are feeling the same guilty, helpless kind of sickness I'm experiencing now.

Whatever my teenage, hormone-fuelled reasons for leaving, I write this because I'm so thankful for all the strength passed down to me, to my family, to everyone I once knew, by a remote city carved into the boreal forest by two rivers.

I saw that strength Tuesday on Highway 63, as an inferno threatened to kill but didn't.

The evacuation of so many on that little road surrounded by burning trees, as cinders and smoke leapt out from both sides, could have gone so much worse.

The steadfastness of Fort McMurrayites is the reason it didn't.

I know nothing of the city good people have worked hard to build up in the years since I left. And I know nothing of what they're feeling now, in limbo, with no idea whether they'll have homes to go back to.

I speak whispered useless apologies to you through my hands, to the connections I broke, to our burning, smouldering city, and I offer them up.

We are all thinking of you.

I'm so sorry.

Find Kristy Nease on Twitter at @kristynease.

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