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It was the dry grass glowing in the early morning sun that prompted me to take the above photo at the end of my morning walk last Tuesday. Only four days have passed since then but that walk now feels like it happened in another time, in another world.
I took the above photo on Thursday around dinner time. That is not a lovely late afternoon cloud lit from behind by the setting sun. It’s the smoke plume from the McDougall Creek fire, back when it was still on the other side of the lake, behind the ridges. Yes, seeing the plume was frightening, but my world still felt safe.
I live in Kelowna, British Columbia. In normal times, it’s a joy to live here, but these are not normal times. Every time I turned on the news this week, there were warnings about impending dire weather conditions in our fire-challenged province. These days, I dread checking the news, but I can’t seem to stop myself from doing it. What’s happening now? What’s happening now that wasn’t happening 5 minutes ago? Why is the buzzing in my ears stronger today? What is that hum in my body?
On Thursday, the humming in my body grew with each passing hour. It took up residence under the surface of my skin. I felt it as an itch that no amount of scratching could satisfy. I felt it as an irritated scalp, an overall throbbing disquiet, a gnawing unease.
On Thursday evening, I watched a leaf drift down from the sky, moving in a lazy spiral, slowing until it landed on the road. I picked it up. Half of it was still green, the other half charred. Then a pine needle, long and twinned, fell onto my outstretched hand. Ponderosa pine needles are usually a warm shade of light brown. This one was black. It disintegrated in my palm. I bent down and picked up what looked like a dark rock from the road, but it wasn’t a rock. It was a charred piece of bark from what used to be a tree. The next leaf that fell was completely black.
Like so many others in our city and area, we had to evacuate our house on Friday. Evacuate - such a strange word to say. It requires specific articulation. You can’t slur it. You have to enunciate it. E-va-cu-ate: to vacate, to remove oneself to another location, to empty out. But even without us in it, our house is not empty — it’s full, of us, of our lives. I have occasionally wondered how it would feel to have to leave my home suddenly and now I know. To evacuate is to move in a state of numbness.
Take only what we might need, I told myself, but my head was so full of floating fear that I couldn’t think what that might be. Fortunately, a few months ago, I made a list of what to take in case of an emergency exit and stored it on my phone. This was my version of having a grab-and-go bag. Using my list, I threw some clothes into a suitcase, forgetting instantly what I’d just put in there. Into another bag went our important documents and devices. I replaced the dead batteries in a headlamp one of my daughters gave me a few years ago. I put some food and water into a cooler. Fortunately, Geo remembered to put ice in it.
As we drove away, I couldn’t think about what we were leaving behind or what we might find when we come back. My mind wouldn’t go there. But my mind was travelling widely.
Earlier this week, I’d been thinking about Hawaii, specifically Lahaina, where years ago my family and I stood all together under a magnificent 150-year-old Banyan tree. And then about Hay River and Yellowknife, small cities in our Northwest Territories, also currently under wildfire threat. Traumatic events occurring a continent and an ocean apart, from an island in the Pacific to small cities in a sea of northern tundra. And now my city.
My sister and brother-in-law have generously welcomed Geo and I and another sister into their home in the South Okanagan. Together we wait out our evacuation. And I while we do, I think about our community, our friends and neighbours, and hope they’ve all found safe haven. And I think about the firefighters and first responders and law enforcement people who are leading the battle against these fires in unimaginably dangerous conditions. Where would we be without them in this wild perilous world? I am filled with gratitude for their courage.
Many thanks to all the friends and family who have sent messages of concern to Geo and I in the last twenty-four hours. Each one means so much to us. And thanks to you for reading Me Who Writes. If you found something meaningful in my words, please share this issue with a friend.
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