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Nova Scotia and Fort McMurray are closer than ever today

The heat from the Fort Mac wildfires can be felt thousands of kilometres away.


Brad Donaldson is a 23-year-old communications student at Mount Saint Vincent University. - VIA THE DONALDSONS.
  • via the Donaldsons.
  • Brad Donaldson is a 23-year-old communications student at Mount Saint Vincent University.

The world is unpredictable. It shouldn’t be a surprise anymore that the news cycle goes around the clock. Events, good and bad, are continuously breaking across the world.

During the last few days, news has broken out across the nation of the wildfires near the oil-boom city of Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta. In terms of the face value of the proximity, Fort McMurray is over 5,000 kilometers away from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I sit at a desk. But after hearing of the rapidly growing fires surging towards the surrounding city limits, I still began to worry.

Not for myself, but for others—others who are close to me. Proximity can be figurative, too.

My parents have lived in Fort McMurray for almost two years. I’ve been there twice, most recently over the Christmas break in 2015. For the most part, despite the oil fields, Fort McMurray is like any other Canadian town. There are Tim Hortons and hockey rinks, rich people and poor people, snow and desired summer. But there’s only one road in, and one road out.

In ways, the city of Fort McMurray is comparable to Halifax, as there is a municipality and surrounding neighbourhoods. Like Fairview and Clayton Park are to Halifax, Timberlea and Abasand Heights are to Fort McMurray.

When the fires started reaching these surrounding neighbourhoods, that’s when things began to grow dire for the people of Fort McMurry. And it happened fast. Scary fast.

I was working last night and before going in around 4:45pm, my parents had told me they were safe and fine. My mom’s work had been evacuated, but they were OK. When I finished up my shift a few hours later at roughly 9pm, I checked my phone and had missed calls and text messages from my parents, so I called back right away. The situation had gotten a lot worse.

In short, they had a bag of clothes in the back of a company car (not even their own) and were leaving the city as fast as possible. They had only minutes to grab the bag of clothes before heading out on the road, flames burning on either side of the pavement.

It was hard for me to listen to my mom’s cracking voice on the phone as she drove by her place of work and merely said, “There’s nothing left,” and later, “It’s like if you were to imagine driving through hell.”

I stood motionless listening to her reassurance that they would be OK. After the phone call ended, I checked Twitter—what an amazing resource for emergencies. I’m sure it helped so many people who were caught in the actual mess of what is now left of Fort McMurray.

My mom’s family lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, about a 10-hour drive south. They’d have a place to stay there, but instead they’ve turned back to help out at a shelter roughly 30 minutes outside of Fort McMurray in a secured area.

My parents are lucky. Most of their important belongings are still here in Halifax. Others aren’t so lucky. Others have had their entire lives swarmed by the fires. My dad (a therapist) and my mom (who works at an addictions centre) will be there to help others cope with what they’ve lost.

Proximity, figuratively, matters here because when someone you love is in that place, or situation, you’re suddenly there with them. I’d never felt my emotions being dragged across thousands of kilometers like that before. Living in the small offshore bubble of Nova Scotia, it’s easy to become desensitized to disasters and tragedies that seemingly strike down some place new everyday.

The effects of bombings or earthquakes can only be transferred so much through a journalist’s article or reporter’s newscast. Knowing someone who's on the ground, going through that process, changes things. You’re now emotionally invested. There’s a sense of shock, then panic.

I can’t pretend to feel what my parents, or anyone else fleeing the Fort McMurray area, felt like yesterday as they drove south down the only road, away from the enflamed city behind them. Scared? Hopeless? Numb? In disbelief? Those are just words. They’re nothing to the people going through that, simply speculation of indebted proximity.

Today I’m going to donate what I can to the relief projects and seek other ways to help those in need. I feel, with 5,000 kilometers in the way, it’s the only thing I can do.


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