Notes from a disaster

Some takeaways from the Fort McMurray tragedy:

- Canadians care. The outpouring of support from across the country shows once again that this country is more than an oath to the Queen, more than the flag or the anthem and more than the strengths and weaknesses of our political leaders. When interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, an Albertan, rose in the House of Commons to speak about Fort McMurray, her voice broke and she fought off tears. Her caucus gave her a standing ovation and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rushed across the aisle to embrace her in solidarity.

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- Some ways of caring are better than others. Sending supplies is great, if they're the right supplies. Fuel, food and water are helpful. Rummaging through the closet and garage to send old clothes, dishes and furniture is considerate but much less helpful. Wearing someone else's hand-me-downs is better than nothing at all when you've lost your home but preserving dignity is also important, too. Don't send what you wouldn't wear or use yourself. Just send money to the Canadian Red Cross instead. Both the Alberta provincial government and Government of Canada have pledged to match Red Cross donations, meaning every $1 given is actually a $3 donation.

- Be prepared. Emergency program organizers constantly stress that families should always have an emergency supply of food, water and supplies at home to last up to three days without heat or power. For those living near greenbelts and forested areas or who have rural cabins, clear all of the underbrush around all buildings and roadways. Clean out the gutters. Keep flammables, like wood, propane and gas, in a separate storage area well away from the home.

- Have an emergency plan. If you had to evacuate with no notice, where would you go? How would you get there? How would family members find each other if you were split up and there was no cell service?

- Get out early. In Salmon Arm, Kelowna and Penticton during their respective forest fires where homes were lost, precautionary evacuation were issued days in advance and many people did leave. These kinds of evacuations are mostly meant for young children and people with lung issues who would be adversely affected from the horrible air quality but they are meant for everyone. If your personal situation allows you to leave the community and go elsewhere until the fire hazard has diminished, do so because that's one less home, one less family and one fewer vehicle emergency personnel have to worry about if a mandatory evacuation is required.

- Leave it all behind. If a mandatory evacuation is ordered, just go. What belongings should you take? Nothing, except for essential medications, glasses and your wallet with identification. Everything you own can be replaced. The last thing you should do before you leave: get a water sprinkler up on the roof of your home, particularly on the side facing the approaching fire and turn it on. That one act might be enough to save your home.

- A wildfire is wild. In other words, they are fast, dangerous and unpredictable. The approaching flames are dangerous but the falling, flaming embers being carried by the wind in advance of the fire line are much worse. They are the equivalent of the archers shooting flaming arrows over the fortress wall. The sprinkler on the roof might help douse those embers and save your home but those embers are what jumps fire lines, roads and even rivers to make a wildfire truly out of control. Once it gets to that point, only sustained rainfall can put it out.

- Be a little afraid. Area residents and communities should reduce the risk of a catastrophic forest fire marching into neighbourhoods but once a wildfire is raging at full strength, its destructive power will overwhelm the best laid plans and precautions. You might do everything right and still lose your home.

- Don't worry. The worst wildfires are like the worst hurricanes in that they need specific ingredients to all come together in the right way and at the same time. The time of year, the direction and strength of the wind, how sustained the gusts are, the lack of rain, the dryness of the forest, the amount of available fuel, all need to come together in a perfect storm. It could happen here, this summer or five years from now or 50 years from now or never.

If it does, hopefully we take care of each other and Canadians from across the country show us the same compassion and generosity they have demonstrated for Fort McMurray.


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