When Fort McMurray went up in flames, medical staff rolled up their sleeves

A year ago, hell rained down in fiery embers

05 May When Fort McMurray went up in flames, medical staff rolled up their sleeves

A year ago this week, nearly 90, 000 people fled Fort McMurray when their city went up in flames. It was the third largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history–and the most expensive–but no price can be placed on the lives of the men, women, and children who called Fort McMurray home and workplace. No words can accurately describe the heroics firefighters displayed when they held the frontline, fighting the fire that threatened to engulf their entire city.

My family watched, stunned, as a community we care deeply about threatened to crumble to ashes. My husband is an ER physician at Northern Lights Regional Health Center. Home in Kelowna and off duty on May 1st, he felt powerless to offer up much more than prayer.

Ten days later, along with his classmate from med school, good friend and Department Head of the ER, Dr. Brian Dufresne, as well as nursing staff and various medical personnel, Paul jumped at the chance to do more. Traveling to Edmonton, the team boarded a Fort McMurray bound plane. Chartered flights were getting in but no commercial ones. No problem. People take chartered flights to Mexico, right?

Paul sent pictures. Strapped into little seats that fold up into the walls of the Herc military plane, passengers looked more like Jonahs in the belly of a behemoth whale.

“What was it like?” I asked, picturing him outfitted in fatigues and a parachute.

“Noisy,” he replied.

It was a nice day, scattered clouds, blessedly cool enough for a sweater when they landed. Sadly, some of the sights they encountered were more bleak.

While Timberlea, the area where Dufresne raised his family, remained pristine, other areas like Beacon Hill were burnt to the ground—agonizing evidence of the beast that blew through, relentlessly eating away entire neighborhoods.

Yet my husband was struck by the eerie emptiness of houses still standing untouched, bikes resting against the walls; grass growing in the gardens and swing sets catching the breeze; toys in yards and vehicles parked in driveways—with no one home. It was as if the people have been plucked from within and vanished into the smoky air.

“It’s right out of the walking dead,” he said.

There were all kinds of vehicles in perfect shape, abandoned along the highway because people ran out of gas or simply pulled over, put them in park, and ran up the line of traffic to jump in with neighbors, joining up with family and friends in a crazed kind of carpool. Some security personnel from the Sheriff’s Department told of an orange Dodge Charger, its front end completely melted; its back end in perfect shape. Someone’s sister drove to Edmonton, oblivious the outer panels of her tires on the side of her vehicle facing the fire were melting down to the wires.

My husband’s hotel room (and every building he visited) smelled like a campfire but at least they stood. Upper management and a handful of staff at the Stonebridge Hotel volunteered to open up a week after the fire began, accommodating incoming people.

“It’s a moving picture,” my husband admitted, when asked when the hospital would open. But open it would, as people celebrated  its survival—and much more of the city than originally thought. Meanwhile the team set up operations at a campus of Keyano College. Two of the classrooms were converted to a clinic of sorts, where doctors, nurses, a pharmacist and even a housekeeper, worked together to keep it clean and ready for service.

Of course in these sorts of situations, people become Jacks (and Jills) of all trades. As the medical team labored to haul heavy equipment from a van, up the drive, over the sidewalk and to the building, my husband opted for efficiency.

“I rode the van up onto the grass, right to the door. I may’ve taken out a tree branch or two,” he admitted, “but it saved a lot of time.” Triage, you might say.

Before setting up at the college, another school was considered. Certain officials crawled through the broken window of the elementary, scoping it out, but got more than they bargained for when the cops pulled up and wanted to arrest them for looting.

Once inside the darkened building, they found remnants of what started out as the first day of the school week but quickly turned into a manic Monday. Half-eaten lunches lay on desks while ball hockey pads were dropped, mid-play on the gymnasium floor. The raucous yells and racing feet of elementary children seemed to echo off the smoke-stenched walls like ghostly reminders of the life that filled the building before it was quickly evacuated in fear.

Across the street from the Command Center, where food and water were supplied and communication occurred, the college clinic was powered by a liquid gas generator.

Business was a little slow at first. There was the young man with bloody diarrhea for a week—picture that up there. He went to Edmonton for investigation. Another person had issues with high blood pressure; someone needed an abscess drained. Then there were the firefighters with fatigue, traumatized by what they saw, smelled, felt, and how little they tasted, often trapped in the throes of fighting back the beast, no food or water to replenish their weary bodies. Some of them hadn’t a day off since the hell began and would soon begin their own personal nightmares back to sound mental health.

Humbled by the heroics of first responders, grateful for the selfless contributions many others made to rebuild and thankful for the outpouring of generosity from Canadians across the country, it is in times of great trial we see greatness of humanity.

Perhaps the picture my husband took of a group of deer alongside the road best symbolizes where Fort McMurray would go from there. Emerging dazed but whole from the cindered forest, they walked together. Leaving the darkness behind, they moved forward to where the grass grew green and new.