Yesterday afternoon I left work with a colleague in response to a voluntary evacuation order for my neighbourhood, Thickwood Heights in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The wildfire situation evolved and we reacted; last night I spent the night with that colleague and her family in Conklin. I am now in Edmonton. At the moment I am exhausted and anxious, but I wanted to share some impressions while they are fresh, before I forget. This will be edited, somewhat raw, disorganized.
a) You’ve seen the images and videos, I’m sure. If you haven’t, #ymmfire on Twitter is your best bet. I have some photos but nothing so dramatic as what you’ve seen. Personally, the scariest moment was not the most photogenic: we were stuck in traffic on Confederation Way while quite a piece behind us we could see flames above the trees on the crest of a hill. I saw a man on TV last night saying that what was strangest was the combination of the sense of urgency with the need for patience and the general inability to do anything.
b) You probably know more about the situation than I do. If narrative is in some sense information revealed in sequence, then this was a particularly disorienting novel: the information was often out of date or incorrect. We listened to the radio, which sometimes played automated messages and sometimes had new updates, as the radio jockeys moved from location to location in response to the fire. We also heard from my colleagues friends and contacts when cell coverage worked, but this information was… not terribly reliable. It is difficult to make decisions when you do not know what is going on. I recall hearing that a certain neighbourhood was entirely on fire, that certain properties were already lost, and then later found out that that area was untouched. We were told to head north, and then at the last minute we were directed south—thank goodness. As I write, thousands of people are still stranded above the city.
c) Nothing about the situation, from what I can tell, is new or unique. In radio interviews journalists always ask whether the interviewee has ever seen anything like this before. The answer ought to be “Yes.” In a television segment a broadcaster likened the video clips to a war: “the only thing I can say is that it looks like a war.” But of course it looks like a war; it has been broadcasted in the news. But perhaps it helps to notice this.
d) Lots of things seem strange when things are bad. One side of the sky was orange, black, brown, or grey; the other side had perfect puffy clouds against the clearest blue. I’m sure it has been said before that something shouldn’t act normal and pretty when the city is burning, but that something does anyway; I’m sure it was a cliché when I thought this.
On the radio, between announcements and country-western songs, were the regular advertisements. Of course they were on; advertisements do not stop being ubiquitous when they become irrelevant. Ubiquity despite irrelevance is the point of advertisements. Nonetheless, there was something absurd and disheartening about hearing silly skits about fried chicken while we were stuck in gridlock and smoke began pouring down the street.
e) I felt remarkably calm early on; I was reconciled to almost anything. I thought. Later I felt sick and wondered why. Probably I felt anxious, terrified; I thought about it and realized it was true. I hadn’t noticed. I had assumed that my fatalistic depression was asserting itself in the only time it is ever at all useful. Perhaps it was; as usual, though, it masked blind terror. I did not want to bereave my family and friends with my death; I also very much did not want to burn to death. I did have a half an hour of panic, considering if I would be better off getting out of the truck and walking.
f) That there has so far only been one fatality—and that a road fatality—is still bewildering to me. I was sick with worry, watching people walk down the street with pet carriers in their hands, flats of water bottles balanced on their heads, backpacks over shoulders. Every time I heard a dog bark or a cat mew I looked about frantically for some poor abandoned pet; seeing elderly people on balconies, staring out at the horizon, I worried they had no way out and had simply given up to die alone in their apartments. Those times I was not afraid for my own life (only when gridlocked on Confederation Way did I seriously believe I might die), I was absolutely sick with worry for those who seemed lost, stubborn, or too optimistic.
I wonder how I will respond the next time something like this happens… will that same feeling of horror, that stomach-deep wretched inadequacy, overcome me?
These last two days are ones riddled with reported miracles; for me, these last two days bear all the brunt of the Problem of Evil. Chaos encroaches, encroaches, and before it we are useless.
g) But before it we aren’t useless. Most of us got out. In the face of dissolution and entropy, most people were orderly and human endeavour made some headway. Most of us felt that police, EMS, and government response was too slow, but at least now it seems well-organized and extraordinarily brave. I am unmanned when I think of it.
h) That said, not all of us were orderly when we left. Contrary to what I heard on the radio, there was reckless driving. I am not surprised that the one fatality (so far) has been an accident. A minority of people drove dangerously, driving down sidewalks, across dry grass (hot mufflers can ignite dry grass—bear that in mind), cutting through several lanes of traffic, arguing with police trying to direct them elsewhere.
I wonder what motivates this sort of behaviour: impatience? arrogance? panic? These might be much the same thing sometimes. I have felt impatience build to panic even in non-urgent situations; if real fear sat behind it, too… Still, this behaviour was a large part of the reason why we spent two hours dragging along three blocks while the smoke billowed behind us and the sun shone red-orange on us in a sickly light.
Speaking of this, it was stashed in an overpriced hotel room with four other people that I heard the announcement that Donald Trump had effectively secured the Republican candidacy. I will probably remember this for quite some time.
i) I remember distinctly, as we drove south down Highway 63 past vehicles pulled over for want of fuel, seeing a boy playing with a pet gosling in the bed of a pick-up. “It’s a baby goose!” I exclaimed, and then said, “It’s a gosling, Christian. You know this.” The others laughed at me.
j) The country around Lac La Biche was very beautiful today, with the tender green of spring; it reminded me of something an impressionistic painter might paint. Beautiful too was the sunset that appeared from behind the plume off Beacon Hill as we drove south. There was of course a beauty to the burning grass and trees, too, of a feral unfinished type. The sublime and the beauty in flaming forests and blazing suns. (For a terrified moment at about seven o’clock I mistook the sun for a fireball.) It is something to think about.