Firebag. A little more than 100km north east of Fort McMurray, the Suncor camp received about 20000 evacuees during the Fort Mac wildfire in May of 2016. Just over 100 of those were hospital patients from Fort McMurray’s Northern Lights Regional Health Center in varying states of medical stability/instability. When my work gave me a chance to redeploy to the camp, I wasn’t sure what I had to offer. I am an RN that has always worked in Addictions and Mental Health. I haven’t touched an IV pump in years. I do dressing changes biannually.
At the same time, I did, in all honesty, feel a little bit like a hero when I said ‘yes’ to the offer. I had inner visions of arriving in the heart of the fire, rescuing evacuees from the inferno, treating patients in the midst of the danger, and probably somehow helping stop the fire from spreading any further. These delusions were quickly put to rest when I remembered that I am not indeed a firefighter, but a nurse, and that I was being sent as clinical support, not a as a smokejumper. All the same, it was a mix of emotions and beliefs, one part savior complex, and an equal measure of inadequacy and self doubt. I think that that’s probably the recipe I take to work most days: feeling like I want change the world, but unsure if I have anything to offer.
When we arrived at Firebag, I was struck by the ordered frenzy; the frenetic calm. There was movement everywhere, but it was purposeful, not panicked. There were buses full of evacuees, lined up 8 or more deep, waiting for the nearly hourly WestJet flights that were transporting people to Edmonton and Calgary. There was an army of orange-vested Suncor employees, organizing and directing people, pets, luggage, and planes. Medical staff had taken over a small hanger and set up a makeshift triage center with supplies that had been evacuated from the hospital along with the patients. Patients had been triaged and medevaced appropriately by the doctors and nursing staff that had, in some instances been working for up to 36 hours straight by the time our team arrived. It is safe to say that things had already calmed significantly by the time we got there. As a result, people—staff and evacuees, were starting to process what had happened and this manifested largely through people wanting to tell their stories.
Now, there are as many stories about what happened in Fort Mac as there are evacuees. Each person had their own perspective, and their own details, their own escape story, and their own heroes. But perhaps the most common story I heard was about how fast the fire hit:
“it was a normal day…”
“I had just gone in to Walmart…”
“I went into the gym…”
“I just lay down for a nap, and there was smoke in the distance, but everything seemed fine…”
“And when I looked outside half an hour later it was like the world was ending.”
In a crisis like the one that hit Fort Mac, it is always easy to point fingers about preparedness and response times, but it seemed to me that every account I heard was one of surprise at just how quickly the situation went from being just a normal day to driving your loved ones through flames and praying to God that you’ll all make it. And this is where I want to especially talk about the nurses that I met during my time there. Remember earlier, when I referenced my crazy heroic visions of rescuing people from the flames? That’s what the ER staff was busy with during the evacuation. Loading patients onto buses, and in to staff’s own personal vehicles, and even handing over the keys to their trucks to perfect strangers, just hoping that everyone would make it out ok. And driving past flames, and being turned back by closed roads and driving back through those flames, only to be turned away again, and eventually, finding shelter at Firebag.
There is no doubt in my mind that without the open reception, the hospitality, and the resources shared by Suncor, there would have been very different outcomes for those 20000 evacuees that took shelter at Firebag. 20000 people in crisis, some of whom were medically compromised, without food or water, without a place to stay, cut off from an escape route, in the middle of the boreal forest, would have resulted in some bad outcomes. Suncor saved lives. Westjet saved lives. The medical staff—who, keep in mind, were also evacuees—that stayed to help inspite of their own homes burning, their vehicles being lost, their family members evacuating, their partners fighting fires, their own uncertainty—saved lives. And they did it without complaining. And they did it as a family. I know how sentimental is can sound to distinguish between a “team” and a “family,” but the medical staff up there in Fort McMurray were a different than I’ve seen. They had deep bonds. They were looking out for each other. There wasn’t much they wouldn’t have done to help each other. I continue to be inspired and challenged by them when I reflect on my experience. I am grateful to have been witness to the heroic efforts on the ground in Fort Mac during such an enormous catastrophe. To have safely moved so many people out of harm’s way, including people that were, and those that became, medically compromised, is a feat that should be celebrated.
As the residents of Fort Mac continue the cleanup, the rebuilding, and the carrying on of life in their community, I hope that the efforts, the giving, the prayers, and the sacrifice of strangers will only increase. I know that as the media moves on to cover other stories, and as interest wanes in a wildfire that slowly dies out, the needs of that community and its individuals remain. May we, as fellow Albertans, remember our family in Fort McMurray, and continue to stand in solidarity with them, as they mourn losses, as they celebrate their heroic efforts, and as they rebuild their community.