We’re with you, Fort McMur­ray

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at Rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc Twit­ter: @Wanger­sky

They were talk­ing about Fort McMur­ray on the St. John’s Metrobus.

Peo­ple don’t usu­ally talk much on the Metrobus, you un­der­stand. But they’re talk­ing today, and it’s a con­ver­sa­tion be­ing heard across the At­lantic prov­inces, from Tim Hor­tons in Syd­ney, N.S., to small towns in the An­napo­lis Val­ley. A sim­ple trip on­line finds re­porters from New­found­land to Char­lot­te­town to Hal­i­fax ask­ing At­lantic-Cana­di­ans in Al­berta to get in touch.

The talk started Tues­day night with the first evac­u­a­tion order in Fort McMur­ray. So­cial me­dia lit up with first-hand tweets and Face­book posts about the fire. Soon, there was a com­plete evac­u­a­tion, with video show­ing the fire ter­ri­fy­ingly close. Peo­ple at this end of the coun­try started post­ing in­for­ma­tion about how to make tele­phone dona­tions to the Red Cross.

Early Wednesday, fire of­fi­cials were watch­ing the weather, ex­pect­ing wind, and post­ing grim lists of the ar­eas hard­est hit by the ad­vanc­ing fire: “Bea­con Hill - 80 per cent loss of homes; Tim­ber­lea - 12 trail­ers lost on Mckinlay Cres.” Later in the day, the num­bers were 1,600 struc­tures dam­aged or de­stroyed.

For so many East Coast work­ers and their fam­i­lies, Fort McMur­ray is a long way west, but also the work­site next door.

The oil­patch may be slow­ing, but it’s far from stopped: scores of At­lantic-Cana­di­ans ei­ther travel there for work or have moved to the north­ern Al­berta city, putting down roots. Some peo­ple (not com­pletely glibly) call it New­found­land and Labrador’s second-largest city. Cape Bre­ton could say the same.

It’s the great class equal­izer on many East Coast flights: work­ers some­times use their fre­quent flyer sta­tus to move up into first class, bring­ing base­ball caps and work jack­ets into the rar­i­fied land of Air Canada’s Zone 1.

It also means Fort McMur­ray is far closer than ge­og­ra­phy sug­gests.

By Wednesday af­ter­noon, 88,000 peo­ple had left the Fort McMur­ray area, with no deaths or in­juries. It’s an evac­u­a­tion of as­tound­ing pro­por­tions and it’s touch­ing peo­ple across this re­gion quickly, peo­ple won­der­ing and wor­ry­ing about friends and fam­ily on the move.

How close to home is Fort Mac to peo­ple on the East Coast? You don’t have to tell any­one here about it - it’s as near as a nephew or niece.

At The Tele­gram, the news ed­i­tor re­posted Tweets in al­most real time from his neph­ews, their car turned around by a trans­former ex­plo­sion and forced north out of the city.

One of The Tele­gram’s re­porters used to work at Fort McMur­ray Today, the city’s main news­pa­per; his daugh­ter, born in the Al­berta city, made her par­ents turn off the tele­vi­sion be­cause she can’t watch the fire burn­ing places she knows.

And there’s this ex­change, posted on Face­book by my niece, re­count­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with her four-year-old about her sis­ter in Fort McMur­ray: “Mommy what’s go­ing on?” “It’s a fire, sweet­heart.” “Is Aun­tie Christina OK?” “Yes buddy.” “Does she still have a bed?” “I don’t think so, sweet pea.” “It’s OK mommy. She can sleep here in my bed.”

In the of­fice next to mine, an ed­i­tor didn’t sleep Tues­day night, fol­low­ing a friend’s jour­ney - hus­band, wife, sev­enyear-old twins and the fam­ily dog - north out of Fort McMur­ray, into huge high­way grid­lock, then south again, tak­ing their chances along a pre­vi­ously closed high­way, un­til there’s a 1:30 a.m. post say­ing they are safely out of range of the fire: “We were 8 hrs in our car and fi­nally made it out. ... It’s sur­real to not know what ex­actly we are fac­ing in the next few days.”

One thing you can say about our his­tory of mov­ing West for work?

It stretches fam­i­lies far apart, but it weaves us to­gether across a big coun­try, as well.

I re­mem­ber, years ago, talk­ing to a woman who ran a lounge in a small town on the south­ern tip of New­found­land’s Avalon Penin­sula. The town was too small to keep the lounge run­ning, so it was closed most of the time. We were in an air­plane, head­ing west, but she’d flown east to open the lounge for a wake.

She lived in Fort McMur­ray, work­ing as a man­ager in a hard­ware store. Her hus­band was driv­ing a dump truck at Syn­crude - her son, too. At the time, one daugh­ter was work­ing at a rape cri­sis cen­tre, the other at a vet’s of­fice.

Ev­ery time there was a wed­ding or a fu­neral, she’d fly home to open the only lounge in the area.

There are ties that go both ways, re­gard­less of the dis­tance. And Fort Mac is on Eastern Cana­dian minds and lips today.

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