Therese Greenwood fled the Fort McMurray wildfire two years ago with a small bag of important documents, an embroidered wall hanging and a coffee machine. 

She was one of the lucky ones.

Anticipating the worst, Greenwood had already packed an emergency bag and had taken the time to think about what needed saving most. 

During the panicked evacuation of the city in May 2016, few people had that luxury. 

“Your subconscious is working overtime,” Greenwood said in an interview with CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active.

“You’re grabbing all kinds of things that later, when you’re looking at them, you’re thinking why did I grab the coffee maker? Do I really need this rolling pin?”

“Everyone tells almost exactly the same story, running around, grabbing things.”

Sentimental objects

Greenwood has published a new book, chronicling her escape from the  city. 

What you take with you: Wildfire, Family and the Road Home is a deeply personal account of the disaster.

Greenwood said the book is also an examination of the personal artifacts people learn to cherish most in times of crisis. 

“When I really started thinking about it, I realized that I all the things I grabbed, it wasn’t about monetary value. It was totally the sentimental value and the memory of the person you associate with it.” 

The May 2016 wildfire devastated Fort McMurray and forced residents to flee with only a moment’s notice. (Sylvain Bascaron/Radio-Canada)

Greenwood — a crime fiction writer and former journalist —  had been living in Fort McMurray for four years when the wildfire hit the city on that hot May afternoon and forced thousands to flee for their lives.

As the flames approached, Greenwood had 15 minutes to pack before driving south to safety in Edmonton.

“I was able to run out and throw my go bag right into the car and then spend the remaining 14 minutes running around,” Greenwood said. 

Her home was later completely gutted by the fire. She, like many others, dealt with the loss with a wry sense of humour.

“We have a very zany sense of humour up there, and the day after the wildfire there was already a social media site called ‘Silly things I grabbed while escaping the wildfire.’

“People posted things like, ‘I took the bear head from my husband’s trophy wall’ or, ‘I took my grandma’s canned moose meat.’ ” 

‘Unresolved feelings’ 

While Greenwood can laugh about it now, she was surprised to see how raw the memories still are for some in her home community. 

The memory of the catastrophe has been slow to fade for those who lived through it, she said.  

At Greenwood’s book launch in Edmonton last month, fellow evacuees in the crowd were overwhelmed with emotion.

“It was very hard for them to sit through the reading,” she said. “People who started hearing it realized that they really had a lot of unresolved feelings about it. I was surprised to see people crying.” 

Greenwood said writing was cathartic. She hopes fellow evacuees can find solace in chronicling their own stories.

She is hosting a series of free memoir-writing workshops in Fort McMurray to help others begin the process. 

“I hear from a lot of people that they really want to write about this but it’s really hard to sort through all the images,” she said.

“We’re going to do some exercises this weekend and see if we can help people make their peace with their own story.”

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