The Red Fire Tee

Sensory Processing after the Fort McMurray Wildfire

The red fire tee. That’s how I think of it. It sounds like a description from an L.L. Bean catalogue. It’s not. It’s the shirt I wore for almost twenty four hours as our family fled from the Fort McMurray wildfire three years ago.

Often when I reached for it, I had to suppress the urge to smell the armpits. Did the pungent aroma of my sweat from evacuation day still cling to it?

Recently, a radio report suggested that that the three year mark after a traumatic event is significant. People may only now be able to process their emotions fully. I suspect that many of our city’s 80,000 residents have dozens, if not hundreds of sensory triggers from that day.

I know many want to forget, many others are still rebuilding, but for me, processing the sensations as they come up is crucial.

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Photo by author

Sight 

It was my eyes that first revealed the images of danger, even if I could not quite understand them.

Early on the morning of May 3rd, I boarded a bus with my daughter’s grade three class for a field trip. The science centre we visited was located right across from a blaze that would blow up, just a few hours later, into the most devastating wildfire in Canada’s history.

After the field trip, I drove down our street to get groceries. What appeared in my windshield was incomprehensible. The entire eastern horizon was black – north, south, everywhere. We had just come back from there!

At the grocery store I watched a lady just standing and staring at the same sky. Then she took a picture.  Inexplicably, we weren’t yet motivated to get the hell out of there.

Sound

It was sound that moved me to action.

My phone first beeped at the grocery store checkout. My daughter’s school texted “Please come pick up your child at the school at your earliest convenience.”

On the radio, the local DJ used a steady voice to update us on who should evacuate and who was on standby.

An hour later, three emergency blasts roared through the stereo speakers and the director of the radio station came on with instructions. My kids noticed the look on my face as I thought, What! Aren’t they only supposed to use those for nuclear war!? 

Finally, I decided we would evacuate only after hearing the tone of voice from a family friend who called, concerned for his wife. I hardly recall what he said, but the pitch of his speech told me things were dire. I packed my kids and dog into the van and drove to  meet up with my friend and leave.

Taste and Touch

I don’t have as many memories about taste and touch until later in the day.

I sipped slowly on sweet Gatorade for most of the six hours that we inched our way out of town in gridlock to a safer place in a nearby oil sands camp. It helped me stay hydrated and alert. My kids ate Caesar salad and chocolate chip cookies – all I’d thought to pack for supper.

I recall the cool, smooth feel of the linoleum floor where I lie that night with my husband and dog, while our kids rested on a single bunk just above us.

And later, when we arrived safely in a town further south, a complete stranger extended her hand to usher us into a rented U-haul where she gave us coffee and toothbrushes.

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Photo by author

Moving On

Two months ago, I finally threw out the red fire tee. It had grown thin and had sprouted holes. The sensations though? They are part of me now, and I’m ok with that.

I think our bodies know what they are doing. They pack these sense-memories into our cells in case we need them in the future. I savour mine. They remind me not to take safety or comfort for granted. They urge me to extend empathy to others going through disasters like ours or worse. They help me differentiate real problems from the small stuff. I think, it is fair to say, they are simply part of being alive. 

Alisa Caswell is an engineer and a writer who lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Read her other articles at  “Confessions of a Dandelion Anarchist” or follow her on facebook or Linked In.