Finding hope in a tragedy: Maryanne McGrath gives personal reflection on Fort McMurray fires

When I was in elementary school, I distinctly remember getting excited whenever I saw the name “Fort McMurray “scroll across the ticker on the nightly news. I would cheer when the reporter on the Weather Network eventually got around to reporting on Fort McMurray’s weather conditions. It excited me to see somebody talk about my city, even if it was just for a 30-second weather update before moving to a much more interesting area, such as Edmonton or Calgary.

By Maryanne McGrath

Special to the Advocate

When I was in elementary school, I distinctly remember getting excited whenever I saw the name “Fort McMurray “scroll across the ticker on the nightly news. I would cheer when the reporter on the Weather Network eventually got around to reporting on Fort McMurray’s weather conditions. It excited me to see somebody talk about my city, even if it was just for a 30-second weather update before moving to a much more interesting area, such as Edmonton or Calgary.

I would get even more excited when I saw my father on the news, as my childhood was littered with memories of being on the campaign trail with him; initially for a seat as a Fort McMurray Catholic School Board trustee, and eventually for a seat as a Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Councilor. I grew up knowing my dad was trying to dispel the notion that my town was viewed by others as insignificant, its citizens being seen as glutinous and materialistic, — the misconception that Fort McMurray was an oil town and nothing more.

Now, my hometown is everywhere. News outlets across the country, across the continent, and overseas are reporting on the city I spent the first 17 years of my life in. I heard my dad’s voice on the radio on Tuesday, as he welcomed his fellow citizens to one of the evacuation centers in Edmonton.

I’m finding it somewhat ironic that I now want nothing more than for the news coverage to stop; It would suit me just fine if the only media coverage we got was a 30 second clip on the local weather.

There is something utterly surreal in the constant barrage of footage I’ve seen over the past week. It’s hard to explain to people why I choke up when strangers mention Fort McMurray in passing conversations, or explain why I hide from the stares I receive from strangers in waiting rooms as I tear up from seeing glimpses of my tarnished hometown displayed on TV screens.

At the same time, I can’t entirely criticize myself for being hesitant to speak up regarding my discomfort; how am I supposed to articulate the feeling I got when my sister called to say her summer workplace had caught fire? How could I expect to convey the pit in my stomach that grew on May 3rd, when the calls for evacuation were made, and the first images of my ravaged city were released? I have never felt the distinct terror that I felt upon realizing that my mother was driving down hwy 63, blocked on both sides by walls of fire. I will also never forget the helplessness I felt at seeing the efforts of the fire crews be devoured by the determination of the fire. As someone who had volunteered in relief efforts during the 2013 flooding, it was painful to be completely unable to do anything but watch the evacuation and the devastation unfold.

Truly, I am finding it difficult to process the danger, the fear, the loss.

Often, I tell people that this past week has been like watching a flight that you’ve missed go down; I am burdened with the guilt of being able to carry on with my normal routine, while also being acutely aware of (and thankful for) how lucky I am to not have decided to make one of my routine trips home over this past week.

When I check my Twitter feed each morning, I am hoping that I won’t be receiving notice that my childhood home is gone. With every passing hour, I am hoping that the streets where I learned to walk, where my mom taught me how to ride a bike, where my dad taught me to drive will still be standing. Nearly every text or phone call I’ve gotten in the past few days has been a question about the wellbeing of my family or the safety of my home. Most importantly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to truly communicate the fear I felt when I heard my mom sobbing on the other end of the phone when she called me during the evacuation. I will never forget how she described her drive through the darkness, fire and smoke; relying solely on the taillights of other vehicles to stay on the road in the chaos and confusion. As the oldest of three siblings, there’s something ingrained in me that tells me when I hear fear crack its way into my mother’s voice — it’s time to be worried.

However, amidst the anguish, fear, and heartbreak, we are finding hope. For every photo of the destroyed neighborhoods of my city shared on Facebook, I have seen others post messages of support; individuals and organizations collecting donations, convoys of supplies headed up 63, stories of families being reunited and friends declaring themselves as safe and well cared for. My family evacuated to an area north of Edmonton, with sporadic cell reception; when I connected with them, bringing a stack of printed pages of available resources for them, they were beyond overwhelmed.

Despite the heartbreak we have dealt with as a family since Tuesday afternoon, what has truly awed us has been the helping hand present at every turn. I almost want to scoff at my younger self for thinking that no one cared about my city; now, the care is evident from every citizen of this province and this nation. When I first moved to Red Deer in 2013, I would not have ever imagined that this city would rally in support of my home. The commitment and the dedication shown by Red Deerians to helping families like mine since the evacuation took place has truly taken us aback.

The story that needs to be told is not that of the fire, or the property damage, or the thousands of individuals removed from their homes. It is instead of the valiant attitude displayed by the citizens of Red Deer, the people of Alberta, and the compassion shown by Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Within a day of the disaster’s start, the citizens of Red Deer and various agencies were already assembling to host fundraisers and assist evacuees in any way possible; from the Mayor, to the president of Red Deer College, to our MLAs, I have been witness to some of the most humbling acts of genuine empathy.

There is something to be said for the stubborn Albertan spirit residing in all of us during this moment in time. Where else would you find people brave enough to bring hundreds of gallons of gas up a highway that was clearly on fire? Where else would you find people generous enough to stop and support complete strangers with no expectation of ever being repaid for their time and service? The “Keep on, keepin’ on” and “Alberta Strong” attitudes resounding through our communities right now make it easier for me to lean on others for support and remain optimistic for the eventual end of this disaster.

Though I am sure that I will carry this tragic loss with me for the rest of my life, the gratitude I have for Red Deer and my fellow Canadians as a whole will always outshine that darkness. I have no doubt that my family and I will return to a Fort McMurray that is drastically different from the city of my childhood, but I now know that my family and I will not be facing that hardship alone. While we are mourning the loss of our town as we know it, I am thankful that we are not mourning the loss of our spirit.

Every part of Fort McMurray holds a place in my childhood memories. It makes viewing the footage, reading the tweets, following the commentary incredibly difficult. However, my family and I are thankful that we are witnessing none of this alone. I am overwhelmed with the warm hugs, concerned phone calls, and encouraging conversations. If this experience has taught me anything, it is that the true nature of people shines in times like these.

So while the next few weeks, months, hold a lot of uncertainty for myself and my family, I am confident in knowing that what I assumed about my city as a child is quite the opposite; we are appreciated, we are resilient, and we are strong. We will rise from the ashes and rebuild when the time comes. Until then, we will keep our loved ones near and know that we are not alone — we are in this together.

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