I have been keenly watching the news this week about the devastating forest fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I’ve never been to Fort Mac, but its reputation precedes it. It is a community that has been largely built over the past several years by people who work in the area. It is an oil town that services the camps in the oil sands north of the city. It’s population is working class, Canadian, and largely hard core Albertan.
The fire has forced the evacuation of 80,000 people. It has overtaken essentially the entire town. First responders are doing their best. The armed forces have been called in. Help is coming from Ontario and Quebec. West Jet, a native Albertan company, is flying evac missions in jumbo jets out of Fort McKay. (Air Canada is still running routes to the Bahamas and charging for snacks) (plus GST).
The images are absolutely apocalyptic. I am sorry for anyone who has had to experience that. It is truly a horrific thing. Help is pouring in from all corners. Syrian refugees, only recently resettled in Canada, still trying to learn the language, are shopping for goods to send those who have been displaced. We are Canadians. We will stand strong and we will survive this. No human life has been lost.
The consequences of this particular fire are complicated. Not only did the entire town burn down and displace its whole population, but it will have far broader consequences. And serious ones. It will devastate oil operations for some time to come. At a time when the current government of Alberta, and in fact Canada, are not particularly supportive of this industry, suddenly finding itself in need a complete overhaul is not a desirable position. Not only for the workers who have managed to keep their jobs thus far, but for temporary foreign workers who will end up in a pickle. For the people in Fort Mac whose workplaces burned along with their homes. Their livelihood taken too. It also takes a boatload (literally) of barrels off the market which is going to have a far reaching economic effect. Its a really big deal. Its not a just a town that burned down. Its so much more than that.
I guess the good thing is that the men who work in the oil fields are largely from somewhere else. Once things get settled, the workers will return to the camps and there will be a good deal of hearty labour in the area to pick this place up, dust it off and get it back together. That’s comforting. In the long run.
Like everyone, I have taken to Facebook to read some of the accounts. To watch the videos. It is nice to hear the good old Albertan string of f-bombs and Holy Shits as commentary in the background of the videos. These are hearty folk, driving out of town in good solid automobiles. Strong backs and strong hearts. I read all the notes and memes about how its the people that matter. Its just stuff. As long as you have your loved ones…
I read one account of the man laying on the floor in a camp room that was given to his family when the workers left for other places. His kids were asleep nearby and they were all safe. And yes, bottom line, that is a blessing. It IS all that matters. Everything else can be replaced. Its just stuff. I recently had the extraordinary privilege of purging my stuff, voluntarily, and getting rid of so many things that I simply don’t need. Every day in Morocco I am confronted with the lack of things I need to get by. It is ridiculous how much stuff we think we have to have. I see people every single day that are very very poor and live very simply. Cooking over open coals on a street corner so they can have lunch while at work. A bed underneath your mattress is a luxury item here. Reusing plastic bags and water bottles for every use imaginable. Nomads in the desert who have very little of anything. And they are perfectly happy. Because they know that its not the stuff that matters.
But let’s get back to Fort McMurray. Let’s talk about the struggle that never gets talked about in these sorts of emergencies because it gets caught in the place where the media coverage ends. Let’s talk about those 4 walls. Shelter. One of our basic human needs. Yes the town burned down and no lives were lost (hamduulah – thanks be to God). Yes our friends have each other and the shirts on their back and everything can be replaced. The towels and sheets, the tea kettles, the wall decorations, the souvenirs from last years trip to D.R. – that stuff doesn’t matter. But the houses do. The 4 walls. The place to call home. Your address. That does matter.
People will move around. Find temporary housing for now. Living with friends and family. But having a place to rest your head at night. And tomorrow night. And next week. Having a place to put your new clothing, and dishes. That place matters. Having a place where everyone in your family is together and everyone is comfortable and they are all accounted for. Having those four walls to contain you and your loved ones. That matters. A lot. We should not lose sight of the fact that while these folks were very lucky, and they have their families and loved ones, they have lost an enormous amount. They have lost their shelter. They have a long way back to a place called home. I’m so very sorry for that.
I wish the people of Fort McMurray a speedy recovery. I wish them a successful rebuild. I will do what little I am able to support the rebuilding of those houses so that these very traumatized people can return to a place called home.
And tonight, I will thank my lucky stars for the roof that stands over my head, and that of my loved ones. And feel so fortunate for that shelter.