Opinion: On wildfire's fifth anniversary, let's learn from the last word in resilience

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Last month, I logged on to an online economic development forum run by people who did not live in Fort McMurray five years ago, when a wildfire levelled swaths of the city and sent 80,000 residents scrambling to escape the inferno. The organizers talked about how, miraculously, no one was killed in the flames that circled the town and how quickly we rebuilt our homes, our businesses and our lives.

Fort McMurray likes to think of itself as a “get ‘er done” town. We brag that one year in our work-centric, high-energy oil town is like five anywhere else. Disaster recovery and insurance experts were delighted when, in the first three years after the fire, whole neighbourhoods literally rose from the ashes.

It was our finest hour, the forum said. We should tell our story. We should set the record straight about our town, a target of criticism as the centre of Canada’s oil production. We should market ourselves as a bastion of resilience.

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“If one more person says the word resilience,” a friend typed in the offline chat. “I’m going to punch them in the throat.”“Me too,” I replied.A year ago, I might have agreed with the presenters. My memoir about fleeing the wildfire and losing my home was full of reflections on resilience. Creatively, it marked a personal high point in the five-year cycle of reaction, response and recovery that typically follows a natural disaster.At that time, I also created a series of free writing workshops for fire survivors. It was not something I went into lightly. I talked to experts in emotional trauma and memory triggers. I spoke with people from the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, where a train derailment caused an inferno that killed 47 people. They spoke to me of healing and the power of art, of the value of creative reflection in nurturing a shared sense of belonging that makes a community more resilient.Things went well when I road-tested the workshop out of town, where there was no shared experience and everyone wrote about a different memory. When I launched the workshop in Fort McMurray, it included a range of supportive resources, including both a mental health counsellor and an Indigenous elder. But the counsellor had lived through the fire and her agency was overwhelmed by fire survivors seeking help. The elder had seen the fire veer towards his home until a wind shift changed its path. The first hour into the session everyone was in tears, including me.Shared traumatic memory is a loaded weapon and we were pulling the trigger in service of the human compulsion to share a common story. With our innate craving for connection and empathy, we talked about how to balance the pain of individual memory with the value of building community resiliency. We conceded the difference between endurance and healing. We talked about how hard it was, how long it took, how the story wears on.

This month marks the fire’s fifth anniversary, when our trauma was supposed to fade in the rear-view mirror. But Fort McMurray’s recovery cycle has been interrupted with new catastrophes, including a flood that swamped our downtown and my next home with it. The pandemic’s economic uncertainty is another burden in an oil town that realizes the future of energy is shifting.

Commitment. Good intentions. Triggers. Setbacks. Fatigue. Stumbles. Tears. Recommitment. Fort McMurray knows what to expect on the long, bumpy road to pandemic recovery. After all, we are the last word in resilience.

Therese Greenwood’s memoir What You Take With You: Wildfire, Family and the Road Home, was a finalist for the 2020 Alberta Book Publishing Awards from the Book Publishers Association of Alberta.

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