Sask. fire evacuee shares experience, advice for Fort McMurray residents

Kandis Riese was evacuated from her home in La Ronge twice, most recently in 2015. She is sharing an open letter to evacuees from Fort McMurray.

A woman evacuated from La Ronge during last year's wildfire season shares message of hope

Fire on the edges of Lac La Ronge, in northern Saskatchewan in July 2015. (Kandis Riese/Facebook)

A woman forced to evacuate her home in La Ronge, Sask., during last summer's wildfires penned an open letter to the more than 88,000 evacuees leaving Fort McMurray, Alta.

In 2015 northern Saskatchewan saw an unprecedented number of wildfires, forcing 13,000 people, including Kandis Riese, to leave in a moment's notice.

Now Riese has put her experiences and her thoughts during her evacuation on paper, along with advice for evacuees and volunteers who are helping out.

Open letter

An Open Letter to Everyone ~ About Evacuees

This is based on my experience as an evacuee during the largest evacuation in Saskatchewan's history in July 2015 because of forest fires.

It needs to be stipulated first that I considered myself one of the very fortunate evacuees for several reasons. The first reason being that I was extended kindness and generosity from people by way of offering their homes as a place of refuge for me. The second reason, I was able to take my vehicle and fill it with what I valued most. Other evacuees were not so fortunate.

A police officer came to my home and told me I had to leave and it would be best to do so within the hour. Though my hometown had been shrouded with smoky air and burned pine needles for a couple weeks and I was aware of forest fires in the area, I refused to believe that this would lead to a mandatory evacuation. I was not prepared for this. I had nothing packed. I had not slept for two days. I was, at that point, racing around my home packing up while fueled by adrenaline and fear — preparing to drive two and a half hours south.

Here are some things to know about evacuees

Evacuees need you.

Please consider opening up your home and property (if you are able) to evacuees needing a place to stay. Though Red Cross and other organizations go into full throttle mode to provide for evacuees, a traumatized evacuee is better off staying in a home rather than an auditorium full of cots with three hundred other people.

Staying in a hotel is certainly a better option but there is something much more comforting about having a home opened up to an evacuee by caring people known to the evacuee.

A family of evacuees from wildfires near La Ronge, Saskatchewan. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

Evacuees are traumatized

After fleeing their homes, evacuees are consumed with fear and dread. Some might already know that their home has been destroyed. Some might be in constant fear of the possibility of their home being destroyed.

Evacuees feel helpless

Evacuees are fearful and agitated.

Evacuees are sad and angry.

Evacuees feel lost.

Evacuees are dealing with uncertainty.

Evacuees are restless.

Evacuees experience deep loneliness.

Evacuees worry constantly.

Evacuees constantly think about other evacuees.

Evacuees sigh heavily — a lot.

Evacuees can initially appear very disoriented.

Evacuees are different people than you know them to be.

Evacuees may switch gears many times a day going from sad and lethargic to angry and restless. They may sit for lengths of time in a zombie-like state appearing to stare off into nowhere. Let them.

Evacuees may be agitated and pacing back and forth and exhibit subtle signs of self-soothing. Let them. Evacuees may be very sad and cry a lot. Let them. Evacuees may want to talk excessively and repeatedly about their traumatic experiences related to the fires and the evacuation. Let them. Evacuees may be very withdrawn and not want to be asked questions about their traumatic experience. Don't ask them (but be there to listen when they do talk about it). Evacuees may have a loss of appetite. Have food available to them at all times anyway. Some evacuees go into overdrive and need to keep busy. This sometimes results in OCD-inspired cleaning and organizing of a host home. Let this happen but be sure not to let it continue throughout the entire evacuation time. If you are hosting evacuees allow them to contribute to daily tasks when they are ready to do so.

Smoke billows from a forest fire along highway 969 in southern Saskatchewan on June 29, 2015. (Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure/Canadian Press)

Evacuees seek information

Don't be alarmed by what appears to be an obsessive and excessive use of social media, texting, and phone calls. Evacuees are trying to find each other (family members and friends). Everyone who knows and cares about an evacuee is trying to contact them. The excessive use of social media as an "information getting" tool will continue throughout the entire evacuation time. It is common for evacuees to be checking social media frequently (I mean VERY frequently as in every fifteen minutes if not more). Evacuees will be watching news media in the same way. Seeing a familiar face on the news is comforting to an evacuee.

Evacuees are grieving

Whether evacuees have lost their home to fires or not, they are ALL grieving. Evacuees are overwhelmed by tremendous loss they are now faced with. This is an excruciating painful time. During the evacuation time evacuees often are unable to see that there is an eventual end to the plethora of emotions they are experiencing. It does not matter how long the displacement phase of the evacuation is – it seems to last forever!

Not only is there loss of physical structures (your home, your business, your favourite grocery store) there is grieving over the actual municipality itself. Many people become emotionally attached to the municipality in which they live. I believe this to be magnified exponentially when it is your hometown. The destruction of the natural environment is devastating to people who love and appreciate nature. If buildings burn down in the center of a city, it is devastating BUT new buildings can be built in a relatively short period of time compared to the reforestation of nature that can take years. Keep in mind as well that the natural environment is home to wildlife that is now displaced as well and in many cases life has been lost. Yes, that too is on the mind of evacuees.

Evacuees are financially stressed

An evacuation is expensive! When you leave your home abruptly and under duress you don't always pack up what is needed. Some people leave their homes with nothing more than what they are wearing. Clothing is needed. Personal care products are needed. Food is needed. This all costs money that was not part of a regular planned budget. Evacuees spend extra money trying to keep their children entertained. Child evacuees no longer have the comfort of their neighbourhood friends to hang around with. They are put in unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people. Children are known to be adaptable but children are also very observant and intelligent. They are witness to the stress of their parents who are trying very hard to conceal their own worry by keeping children distracted while away from all that is familiar and comforting to them. During evacuation time many evacuees experience the loss of wages. This does not always end when the evacuation does. Places of work are sometimes destroyed by fires and need to be reestablished and rebuilt. The loss of revenue for businesses is phenomenal — local businesses owned by local people need the support of local people. There is a continued ripple effect to a municipality's economy. This can be felt for years after an evacuation.

A fire crew battles a blaze in the La Ronge area on northern Saskatchewan in July 2015. (Government of Saskatchewan/CP)

Evacuees do not want to be a burden

Evacuees want to be home. They don't want to need the help of others but they have no choice. This adds to their stress. Evacuees know they can be an imposition to others (even if you reassure them they are not). Please be patient with evacuees. Please be there for them and genuinely offer support.

Evacuees are deeply grateful for your help

Though the roller coaster of emotions and upset is what you will see most, evacuees are indeed thankful. They may not express this to you but keep in mind they know it and feel it.

Insights into supporting an evacuee

Tell an evacuee what you are willing to do for them. Refrain from saying "Call me if you need anything." Take the proactive approach by offering what you can "I have bath towels and clothes for you." "I have a spare bedroom. It is yours for as long as you need it." "I would love to have you come spend a couple weeks with me. There is lots of room."

Some evacuees are further drawn into despair by the lack of routine during the evacuation time. If the evacuee is ready and you are in a position to do so, please offer an evacuation-time employment opportunity to the evacuee. This will help alleviate some of the financial stress and help an evacuee feel less helpless.

If you are able to take a few days off work to help an evacuee settle into their evacuation host home please do so. You would be willing to help someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one and evacuees are going through a very similar experience. Evacuees are often in various stages of the grieving process.

Do your absolute best to refrain from judgmental thoughts and comments (even though you may not notice you are doing this). If evacuees are smokers, it is likely they will be smoking a lot more. If evacuees consume alcohol, it likely they will be consuming a lot more. This is temporary. Bringing it to the attention of a stressed evacuee only adds to their already overwhelming stress. Again, I ask for your patience. This does not mean you are expected to allow smoking and alcohol consumption in the host home if this is not your norm. It is ok to set out a cigarette butt disposal container outside your house with a lawn chair. I am not encouraging unhealthy behaviours but evacuation time is generally not an effective time for dealing with an addiction.

Encourage healthy engagement by inviting evacuees to go for a walk with you. Get outside into nature whenever possible. Let the evacuee know you are working on a project and want them to join in. If you have a connection to someone who has a skill that might be of interest to the evacuee, invite them over and allow the evacuee some healthy interaction and productive time.

Be sure to encourage evacuees to drink plenty of water. Being stressed and grieving is exhausting and dehydrating. Don't ask evacuees if they want water, just give it to them.

Evacuees are individuals with similar struggles and with very different struggles. There is no 'one size fits all' approach to knowing the needs of evacuees. If you are so inclined to support evacuees in way, please do so. If you can be a host home for evacuees that is an absolute gift. Yes, there will be challenges but at the same time it is a temporary arrangement. Evacuees will recover from the trauma at their own pace. Recovering from the trauma does not happen during the evacuation process. It happens later and it can take an exceptionally long time. Always know this is not what the evacuee ever wanted to experience.

Patience and more patience is essential when helping evacuees. Once all the devastation of the fires has been dealt with and the rebuilding (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) is accomplished — yes, it will be, you can expect evacuees to be taken back to this traumatizing time in their lives whenever another natural (fire) disaster occurs anywhere on the planet. I believe previous evacuees can relate to this during this painful time for all who have an association with Fort McMurray.

Kandis Riese, two-time evacuee - northern Saskatchewan wildfires