Evacuee Alisa Caswell responds to those using catastrophe to score political points.
As I tossed and turned on the hard floor of the Syncrude camp after our evacuation, a million thoughts raced through my mind: “Did our house burn?” “Will our city survive?” “Where will we live?” Among them, I am sad to say, was: “Boy, I wonder what the Fort McMurray Haters will have to say about this?”
Luckily, I was wrong, at least for the first week. The outpouring of support and compassion from the province, country and beyond has been astounding, and has eased a lot of our collective grief. However, a few politically ambitious souls have given in to the temptation to ratchet off the disaster-magnitude media spotlight. Whether these temptations flow from pro-pipeline politicians or climate change activists is completely irrelevant. It is the magnitude of the disconnect that irks me.
If those so tempted could experience what is going through the mind of the evacuees, common decency might incent them to bite their tongue. Our experience in the first hours of the disaster and the weeks since is likely typical, and my hope is it will serve to rouse some of that decency.
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 3, I attended a field trip at the Discovery Centre with my daughter’s grade three class. It was a beautiful day, the skies were clear. At 1 p.m. I entered our local grocery store. An ominous smoke column filled part of the eastern sky. At 2 p.m. I was at the checkout till. Rumours were buzzing and so was my phone. I received a text that told me to pick up the kids from school.
When I exited the store, the scene filled me with horror. The entire eastern horizon was black and red. Cars at the gas station next door were lined up down the street. I immediately thought of a scene from Stephen King’s “The Stand”. The radio in my van was blaring evacuation orders.
My mind entered some type of rote survival mode and I began making decisions in a tactical way. The first decision I had to make was which of my children to pick up first – my daughter from a nearby school, or my son from the high school much nearer to one of the fires.
I got both kids without incident. The school staff were dispatching children with military precision. The next decision I had to make was whether to evacuate immediately and join the growing gridlock, or wait for the final call for my neighbourhood. Finally, after some phone calls, I decided to evacuate and convoy with a good friend.
The height of our fear came when we were gridlocked near our own street for more than an hour. My friend and I made the mistake of looking behind us. Smoke and flames could be seen past our houses. We had no idea how close the fire was and no idea when we would start moving.
The radio station that had just been blaring emergency signals to us was now off the air. At this point, I had the most sickening thought of the whole ordeal: “I wonder how quickly we will pass out from smoke inhalation before we are engulfed in flames if that fire overtakes us?”
We eventually started moving and, as I had my two kids and dog in the car, I was able to steer my mind back towards logic. We joined my husband and spent a sleepless night at camp. We had to evacuate again the next morning, this time south. And we eventually found our way to relative comfort in Calgary.
Even from our reasonably good position, we are not able to think more than one or two days out. Each day we struggle to complete the basics: get meals on the table, keep the kids calm and in routine, sleep. Our window on the world extends out a mere two weeks, when we might get an idea of when we can go home. At least we still believe we have a home and a neighbourhood. Some do not.
When the first news feed item flashed by in the vein of the “dark irony” of our wildfire, I could not even read it. I could not even read the responses denouncing these reports. It was so simply and purely irrelevant to our lives, now overwhelmed by disaster.
A few days later when I read that some politicians were trying to use the fire to elevate their positions on pipelines, I felt sick. I was horrified at the thought that anyone would try to make political gain out of such a tragedy. But I am also deeply concerned at the quality of leadership on display.
Good leaders should have an innate sense of which matters require tactical versus strategic management. During this crisis, it has been comforting to see certain elected officials and community members rising to the tactical challenges. I also respect those leaders who know to step aside and let others lead. But I have no respect for those showing an utter disregard for the physical realities on the ground in Fort McMurray, let alone the unhealed psyche of an entire city and province in mourning.
Although many of us in Alberta normally welcome the complex debate about how our province and industries fit into the energy future, these coming weeks are not the time for that discussion. A psychological pamphlet was circulated to us, the evacuees, with this sage advice: “Do not make any major life decisions during this time of crisis.”
I can’t help but agree.