May. 2nd, 2017

yuuago: (A Redtail's Dream - Together)
It's the evening of May the 2nd. This time last year, I couldn't sleep, because it was unseasonably hot - around 20C. There was smoke blowing in from a nearby forest fire, and it was so thick that you could smell it even when you were indoors.

The next afternoon, my city was smothered in smoke and fire, and everyone in Fort McMurray - over 80,000 people - was evacuating.

If you look at a map, it becomes a little clearer why getting everyone out was such an amazing feat, and why it's a miracle that of everyone who left, only two people died in traffic, and nobody was directly killed by the fire.

We're in the middle of an enormous forest. There are no other cities. There are no other towns. There is only one road - and aside from a bit of road leading to the oil plants and to Fort McKay, it only goes in one direction: south. The few small settlements north of us, many of which were once trading posts, can only be reached by air and water.

If you leave Fort McMurray and travel down Highway 63, the next place that you can buy gasoline is about 200 kilometres away. The road doesn't branch until after roughly 250 kilometres.

It took until July 5th to get the Beast under control, and by that time it had burned over 5,900 square kilometres. For reference, this is over twice the size of Hong Kong.

I'm putting this into numbers because it's easier to process than the things that I saw that day. There were ashes falling from the sky. As we left work to run to our homes, my coworkers asked me, "Yuu, is this normal? Has it been like this before?" They were looking at me for reassurance because I know this place, I was born here, I know how our forest fires work, and I couldn't do anything to reassure them, because this wasn't normal. The smoke was so thick that it blocked out the sun.

On our side of the city, we thought the river would protect us, but the fire jumped across the Athabasca as if it wasn't even there. The radio kept playing an evacuation announcement between songs, along with the notice "This radio station is unmanned. Do not call the station seeking assistance." Before we locked up the house and left I said a spell for protection against forest fire. When we drove through downtown there was fire on both sides of us. The trees were so hot that some of them were exploding. Abasand and Waterways and Beacon Hill were burning.

As we left the city, we were stopped and instructed to drive on the wrong side of the twinned highway - the northbound side, even though we were going south. They needed to send people down both parts of the highway in order to get everyone out. "Keep to the right side of the lane," the traffic officer said. "Help is coming up from Edmonton on the left."

Edmonton is five hours away.

That was last year. This is this year. I'm alive. My home didn't burn down. The forest is coming back. The burnt trees are everywhere, all you have to do is look, and you'll see it. If I look out my office window, I can see the bare burnt edges of the river valley. But when spring comes properly, there'll be a thick carpet of green and purple. It isn't here yet; Winter hasn't gone to sleep yet - the river broke on April 25th, and there are still thick chunks of ice along the bank.

I'll be fine. I'm still not okay, not really. The sound of emergency vehicle sirens, or the scent of smoke - and I've been smelling a lot of smoke lately, the city is still doing controlled burning in the Birchwood - it still makes me panic.

But I'll be okay eventually. It's just going to take some time.
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