July 14, 2011
Two months ago, I was trying to get back home when the RCMP turned me away. I was only about eight kilometres from home. The highway into my small, northern town of Slave Lake was closed due to a wildfire. The firefighting efforts made the highway too dangerous for vehicles. I was expecting this but hoping that I could get through.
My daughter, Sharla, and I had left Edmonton earlier that day. While driving to Slave Lake, we stopped in Westlock for snacks and a washroom break. An individual stopping for gas was excitedly speaking into his cell phone. My ears perked up at the mention of Slave Lake. When he got off the phone, I asked him for details. I knew that there was a wildfire close to town. My oldest daughter, Tessa, had already phoned me to tell me that news. What I didn’t know, what this stranger at the gas station told me, was that the highway was closed. I continued towards Slave Lake, hoping that it would be open when I got there, but no such luck.
I had been gone for three weeks on vacation with my mum. She had treated me to a cruise: from Vancouver, B.C., to Hawaii and back again. It had been a beautiful trip, a bonding time for my mother and I, and a chance for me to thaw my bones after a hard, cold winter in northern Alberta. Now I was eager to get home to see the three of my four children who still lived with me. Sharla had driven into Edmonton the night before to pick me up from the airport. We had spent a lovely evening together, going through all the items I had picked up in Hawaii for my friends. Now, after spending the afternoon at a live theatre matinee in the city, we were met with the news of the wildfire, then the road closure.
Driving towards Slave Lake, I could see thick, gray smoke filling the sky, rolling from the ground upwards. Not the kind of view a mother wants to see knowing two of her children were on the other side of that smoke. When we reached the roadblock, there was nothing for me to do but turn around.
I headed back south on the highway, and then turned east to Athabasca. My first stop was a gas station, where I filled my gas tank to the brim. Then I stocked up on frozen pizza and nutritionally deprived sandwiches. Sharla and I made our way to a friend’s farm, vacant at the time. After setting ourselves up comfortably in the newer part of the farmhouse, Sharla crawled into bed and fell asleep. I, on the other hand, spent the next couple of hours trying to get satellite service for my Internet stick. I was desperate for updates on the wildfire condition.
Being that we were in a rural area, surrounded by lush forest, the satellite service was spotty. I was able to connect for a few minutes at a time. Each time, I posted a new status on my Facebook:
“Stuck in Athabasca and I can’t get home.”
“A huge wall of smoke has separated me from my children.”
“Highways are closed due to a wildfire burning out of control just outside of Slave Lake.”
“Sharla and I are in Athabasca while Tessa and Conor are in Slave Lake.”
When there didn’t seem to be any more news on the situation, I gave up and went to bed. Tessa, who was in Slave Lake with my youngest son, phoned me early Sunday morning to let me know the highway was reported to be open. Sharla and I grabbed our stuff and quickly got back on the road. I didn’t want to take the chance that the highway would close again.
We listened to the radio as we drove towards Slave Lake. The fire east of town was being reported as still out of control but contained. When we got to the intersection where the roadblocks had been, we saw nothing but open highway. Elated, I continued towards town.
The acreages east of town had all been evacuated to Slave Lake the night before. And we could see evidence of the fire that had burned in the area: blackened areas along the side of the highway, scorched strands of trees, piles of rubble where houses once stood. My heart went out for those people, evacuated to Slave Lake and now homeless. Little did I know that I would be one of them soon enough.