As we leave Prince Albert, my lungs seem to contract in spasms as I cough to loosen up phlegm. I’m sick and it’s my own fault. When the first wild fire came and went near PA earlier this spring, I didn’t have the usual symptoms that I do during wild fire season and my allergies didn’t flare up. So when we started to see, and breathe in, the smoke from wildfires burning up north recently, I ignored my scratchy throat, the headache, swollen sinuses and the tightness in my chest. I picked up the bottle of Benedryl, then placed it back on the shelf in the medicine chest with an arrogance I would come to regret. I know my body’s limitations - and smoke is one of them. Without taking allergy medication as a preventative measure, I can’t even attend a wiener roast or bon fire… and an evening of stories, laughter and s’mores around a camp fire are a definite “no” for me if I haven’t prepared and taken care to ensure I won’t get sick afterward. So, here we are ten days after some major smoke exposure and my allergy has turned into a virus that my compromised immune system is fighting to create antibodies for. And the irony isn’t lost on me - I’ve resented wearing a mask as a precaution against COVID these last eighteen months. COVID is a virus I can’t see, (please note I still wore the mask. I didn’t like it, but I wore it for your protection and mine) and I’m okay with wearing a mask to protect my lungs from smoke inhalation simply because I can see and smell smoke. It doesn’t make sense that I favour mask wearing for one situation over the other since both can be equally as damaging and deadly. But I digress… we’ve left the city and, though the air isn’t clean, the smoke does seem thinner. We are in another summer heat wave and we turn up the radio and blast the air conditioner, sucking air from outside the vehicle rather than recycling the air from the inside. Aside from the smoke, it’s another typical hot summer’s day … the “dog days of summer” that we often associate with being the ideal lazy day we can enjoy, even if we’re in an office for work. At some point we can make our way outside and enjoy even a few minutes of sunshine.
As we drive further north, I notice the blue skies disappear and grey shadows begin to block our view. On previous occasions, as we passed swamps, I’d hear the frogs. Today, we are met with silence. Periodically we see a crow, or a couple of ravens scavenging off of road kill. This trip they are the only bits of nature we see.
I notice most of the side roads (any side approach off the highway really) has vehicles parked in them. It seems to be temporary parking as no human is in sight. We approach Highway Creek and that’s when we spot a helicopter making its way towards us. It is carrying a bucket on a long rope and we watch as the pilot maneuvers the bucket safely below the tree line, carefully avoiding coming down too low and clipping the mature evergreens with the blades of the helicopter. The pilot hovers for a minute or two and then s/he is flying just above the tree line and rushing north. One helicopter disappears from view and a second one replaces it, filling up a basket with water and heading in the same direction as the previous aircraft. We can see water spraying off the surface of the bucket as the helicopter flies past us but we are experiencing this scene for the first time in a long while and it seems surreal. The reality of what it means to be near a wildfire is beginning to set in and I wonder exactly how close are we going to get to it? Are we in danger? Should we even continue to our destination?
We pass another clearing and I notice a couple of half ton trucks, a fifth wheel, a travelling camper and a clothesline strung up with freshly laundered clothing, drying in the smokey air and rays from a blood red sun. There are a few people at the camp … one watches us, observing to see what we are doing, stopped at the side of the road as we are. Another person checks the clothing on the line, seeing if they’re dry, before lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag and inhaling the nicotine deeply into his lungs. My lungs hurt just watching him smoke. And I wonder that he even needs that cigarette with all the natural smoke his lungs are struggling to filter out of his body already.
We continue on our journey but inside our vehicle it’s quiet. Too quiet for a vehicle holding four active, curious and very awake children aged 13, 7 and two. One of the twins points to the ditch. A fire truck is parked with emergency lights flashing and there are three water trucks waiting along the tree line next to it. If it were fall, the foliage would makes sense but it’s the middle of summer. The trees should be shades of green instead of orange, yellow, red and black … the forest floor is charred and we can see where the wildfire jumped the highway once. Two luxury busses pass us, heading south. My seven year old wants to know if the people inside were here on vacation. We explain the wild fire is so close to some communities that people are being evacuated so they can stay alive. They leave everything they own; their pets, photographs, their way of life and anything that can’t easily be transported and when the order comes to leave, they do. There is no time to hesitate.
Seeing those busses carrying evacuees, I say a quick prayer for them. And I hope the fire turns away from their community rather than destroying it. Miracles can happen. It did earlier this Spring in Prince Albert. I can’t imagine how terrifying and unsettling it must feel to be displaced and moved to a foreign community. For those of us living in central and Southern Saskatchewan, it’s fairly common to travel throughout the province and inter-provincially. For people who live in northern communities, it’s not uncommon to learn some elders have never left their home community. A city like Prince Albert is a metropolis causing anxiety from sensory overload, it is simply too loud and too busy. And now some of the evacuees being transported are leaving home for the first time - can you imagine what they must be feeling seeing Prince Albert, Saskatoon or Regina for the first time? They’re staying in a hotel, eating from a restaurant rather than making their own food that they hunted or shopped for and all they can see is buildings and lights (at night) - how overwhelming! On top of that, some evacuees may not even speak English which adds to the discombobulated feelings they will be experiencing. It truly takes courage to decide to flee for ones life, I think. As unpredictable as a wildfire is, at least a person can take steps to find safety from it and they know the risks if they refuse to leave. The same can’t be said of evacuating to a different community where a person feels they are vulnerable simply because they have no experience or concept of having ever lived in this type of new environment before. I have a whole new level of respect and empathy for people who’ve had to relocate due to the wildfires.
By the time we’ve reached our destination, it’s well past dinner time and we’ve unloaded the things we’ve brought with us on this trip. Like the evacuees, my family and I have been relocating over the past number of weeks and the move hasn’t always been with the happiest of intentions. Our permanent residence is in turmoil and resembles a bomb shelter … after it’s been hit. Several dozen times. Daily. There is still much to sort through even though dozens of boxes filled with things we no longer need have been donated, passed forward or simply left outside with a “free” sign on it. So much stuff. Why are we so intent on accumulating “stuff” when we don’t use it? On the other hand, I made an oasis out of our camping trailer including beautiful handmade quilts that were priceless to me. I made sure they were safely tucked away where they couldn’t be ruined. Someone was welcomed to stay in the camper for a few days … more than a year later and they’ve just recently moved out but the keys still haven’t been returned. My quilts are gone, my keyboard grew legs, the cupboards doors are gone, they even stole the Am/Fm radio… anything that had any sentimental value for me at all is gone. Even my memories have been displaced simply because my trust has been broken by someone who I believed wouldn’t take advantage of a situation when they were in need. And now that I’ve been truly burnt beyond recognition, I’ve learned not to be quite so free with how I practice kindness. I am remaining mum on where my family and I are relocating because I don’t want people I “know” showing up on my doorstep to burn me again. I’m a single Mom - when people take things like they did with the contents of the camper, they take from my children. How do I forgive that? More importantly, how do I FORGET? It was my children who struggled and sacrificed for the “stuff” that meant so much to us, it wasn’t just me. We invested in these items so that our camper felt like home, and familiar, when we were away from home. It was where I lived on my own for six weeks while I recovered from surgery and did six weeks of radiation. Then my home was destroyed by someone who took for granted they had the right to decide what should be important to me and what was important to them. They took ownership of my “stuff” and wiped it out like a wildfire. And so, like the evacuees of the wildfires, I can sympathize with the sense of loss and the feelings of being misplaced without having a sense of belonging or “home.” My only hope is, as time passes, this loss doesn’t have such a bitter taste such as it does right now. No one enjoys the feeling of being taken advantage of - and this is an especially bitter experience because I’d originally said “no” to this person being in our camper but my opinions and feelings were over looked - it’s what happens when I chose to co-own something but didn’t put my name on the title. Lesson learned. Yet you have no idea how much courage it takes for me to say “NO” from here forward - I’ve said it and I mean it even though there are repercussions… some easier to accept than others. I have found there are other ways to be kind, and not in ways that my children have to suffer the consequences for. They asked if we could go camping in July. We weren’t able to because we don’t have a key to the camper, the contents have been stolen and, until doors are replaced and hiding areas are completely cleaned out, it’s not safe for the children to be in the camper. And then there’s the writing on the walls. I kid you not. Grown adults. Writing on walls, in a camper with electricity that they haven’t been charged to use… and they scribbled on the walls, tables, any surface… in permanent marker. There are so many levels to how a person can be burned with the choices they make. And my family and I HAVE been burned. But…
When situations in life force someone to make changes, those sacrifices result in consequences, some come with growing pains and some just bring great results. With this move we were fortunate to find a place to rent quickly near the community where my sister has been transferred for work. The schools are amazing and my seven year old can choose which school he’d like to attend or if he’d like to continue with home schooling. Either is fine with me. Next year the twins can begin preschool and by that time my girl will start driver’s training. That’s the other important part to take into consideration… so many of us focus on the after affects immediately following the fire. We treat the burns, bandage the wounds, assess the damage and evaluate if there’s anything that can potentially be saved. We replace what we can and hope insurance will be fair to us. Years after a forest fire has been through an area, recovery happens in small steps. And while I do enjoy seeing a mature forest take root again, I must say my favourite time of transition after a fire is harvesting firewood in the fall, and gathering blueberries in the summer. Both are equally my favourite times. The same happens with us after we have been burned. Human kindnesses help us get over the sting left from our trust being broken - the initial burn. As we continue to get to know and build on those positive relationships, they are a balm to our wounds and, though the scars serve as reminders, the pain is not quite so intense. And soon, we remember how being hurt changed us but we don’t focus on the pain. That’s a very important part of recovery. It’s where we find forgiveness and the courage to move forward.
So many of us have had traumatic experiences where we have been burned after trusting we would never be hurt and we’d always be okay. Maybe it was a very real wildfire, destroying everything it had taken a lifetime to build, or maybe it was the burn of a betrayal from a loved one, employer or a breakdown in our health. The hurt is real. Yet, it truly is our support systems, the people who are our rock when we need to vent or the ones we can just commiserate with in silence, who help us take away the sting of the burn. Whether they are an actual body putting out the flames of a wild fire or the buddy we can count on to lift out spirit during the darkest of days, many of us know an unsung hero in our life who has helped us look forward to a new day when we didn’t even know how we’d make it to the end of the day we were currently living. My mind is awed to the point of being struck dumb, with no words to express how deeply grateful I am for the unsung heroes who have voluntarily given me the courage to face the wild fires in my life and who have given me hope when I thought there was none to be found. First and foremost, I’m grateful to my children. I didn’t ask to have so many, and I often feel like I’m too tired to give them all that they deserve but they gravitate to me like I’m a magnet and they seem to understand when I’m feeling overwhelmed and they give me space… not too much space, just enough! There’s a song I hear on the radio that has a chorus that begins with the words, “Hey now, kid(s), you’re my salvation” (Salvation by The Strumbellas) and my children truly are that for me. I’m still alive because of them. And there are others who’ve significantly contributed to my quality of life and the way I appreciate it. These are people who don’t assume I’m looking for sympathy, believe I can flip a switch and “get over it” or who sigh deeply and tell me I haven’t invited very many people to my pity party. My unsung heroes are people I can count on for love and encouragement and they are my chosen family; Jim, Denise, Marie, Mark, Felisa, Amber, Kim, Josephine, Kelly, Michelle, Carrie and Laura - my unsung heroes, every day. They inspire me, they motivate me and they kick me in the arse as I need it. And without them I wouldn’t be on my journey of recovery and I wouldn’t be able to remember the person I was so I have a template of who I will be - just a better version - once again. They keep me grounded and they know my roots.
Many of us have unsung heroes in our lives. We rarely hear about them unless there is a tremendous undertaking where a tragedy is magnified by the sheer enormity of it and how we, as humans, cope with wrapping our brains around the circumstances of events. For me, I think of 9/11 and the World Trade Centre, I think of the pandemic/COVID but I also think of the pilot who landed in the Hudson River and saved the lives of everyone on board the plane (movie is on Netflix if you’re interested, Google it.) and then I think of the mass shootings that have happened so far in the USA and Canada this year … lots of people have needlessly died because someone became angry and had a gun. It’s unfathomable to me how many people have been murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as restrictions have been lifted … so people could start living outside their bubble. And unless the event is of some magnitude, we don’t hear about the heroes who helped save the day for somebody. You may think I’m being a bit dramatic when I say this … but every person who has given me hope, including you and your support as I write this column, has been my unsung hero. You’ve helped me find meaning and to gain clarity when I was blind sided with life challenges that left me wounded and scarred. Thank you for giving me support and helping me navigate my way through some intense challenges I thought wouldn’t be able to see my way through. More importantly, thank you for pushing me when I needed to be pushed, for motivating me and for inspiring me in all the ways that you do. You’re all my unsung heroes who’ve really helped save the day. May there also be a super group of people who support you and give the same back to you. We are living in precarious times that really have us needing to lean on our support systems and be unsung heroes for one another. It’s the only way to save the day!
Take care and have a great week everyone.