I don't live in Fort McMurray. Nor have I ever been there. I've watched the heartbreaking video footage and heard the stories. I know some people who escaped and others still there. This is what I think about when I see its smoke, and the smoke of other fires burning in Northern Alberta, hanging over my community too. It feels like the sky weighs a little more. It's the weight of their trauma too. And it's settled on everything here. So many people need help.
Fires rage every summer now, and ever since the Slave Lake fire five years ago, I feel the foreboding. Despite living several hours away from Slave Lake, I recall standing in my backyard as ash from that fire fell from the sky. I also remember scientists warning: "it's no longer a matter of will you be affected by wildfires, it's when." When is now. For our environment and for us.
My favourite story out of this disaster belongs to an Albertan named Mohammed. He phoned the alberta@noon radio broadcast to share it. At work in Bonnyville watching the first evacuation reports on live TV, Mohammed's phone rang. He did not recognize the number but decided to answer anyway. The caller revealed he was a Fort McMurray evacuee driving south in grid-locked traffic with his wife and young children and he had dialed the wrong number. Moved, Mohammed kept him on the line and after a few moments offered his home to the stranger and his family. The caller thanked him and said he would think about the offer but soon afterward, called back to say yes and could he have the address? They arrived at Mohammed’s home in the middle of the night and moved in.
Walls come down when we realize just how much we need each other and what we can truly do for each other. Hence the incredible support from all over North America, even apparently Russia. Despite this haze hanging in the sky, somehow we see each other more clearly regardless of stereotypes, politics, culture, worldview. That fire burned across our lines.
There will be much to do when the rain finally comes, when the smoke is gone. And good riddance. But I hope not good riddance to this fire's current side-effect: kindness, consideration, and unity.