|Don't forget me, Mama|
In mid-July 2006, the dogs and I were heading to Nova Scotia for a short vacation (my father was in the nursing home and my mother was recuperating from surgery so we weren’t spending that summer at our place in Pugwash). We arrived in Edmunston well after supper, and it was dark and raining. In fact, we arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm.
The motel we stayed at sits on top of a hill in Edmunston and I remember wondering if it could possibly be hit by lightning. Before crawling into bed, I decided to put the dogs’ leashes, my overnight bag, with everything in it, my purse and my shoes right next to the door so that if the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night, I could scoop everything up in one minute and be out the door with the dogs to safety.
I don’t share this because I think the residents of Fort McMurray did anything wrong; I share this because I’ve been thinking about them and what it would be like to be evacuated on moments' notice – and to have more than a purse, a bag and a couple of dogs to think about.
I’ve been thinking about that announcement (or call, or knock on the door): "We are evacuating you because of the wildfire. You have 15 minutes to pack your things and get out."
If you're lucky, you get 15 minutes; one family friend says their daughter and husband, who were at work, couldn't even get back to their house. Their two children (aged 18 and 8) were at home and a neighbour brought them to their parents. They had their cars and their cell phones, they had their kids and each other. They had the clothes they were wearing. And that's all.
In five minutes -- "Get out now, the woods next to your home are on fire" -- you can grab a purse, a wallet, a coat, and car keys, maybe your passports if they're handy, but nothing. Certainly not the cat who sleeps in that cubby hole in the far corner of the basement.
If you're lucky, you get 15 minutes inside your home to grab what you can. I've been thinking about this and it's nerve-wracking enough without the life-and-death pressure.
First of all, suitcases; there’s no time to fetch them from the spare room upstairs or the basement.
Next, whose stuff do you pack first – kids or adults? I can’t imagine being told to evacuate when you have an infant and/or a toddler. We all know how long it takes the average mother to get out of the house on a normal day.
There's stuff from the bathroom; what do you need? Nothing is in one spot. The makeup kit is the easiest thing to grab but the least essential.
You rush into bedroom and everything you wear in a day whirls around in your brain. Underwear and bras. Socks. Jeans, shirts, pajamas. Shoes. What do you grab, what do you forget?
For those who aren't panicking (likely my brain would freeze and not work at all), you know there are the most important things to gather up -- medicines, photos albums, cats and dogs, passports -- and you know there are things to sacrifice. Likely clothes are the last things you grab, if there's time.
But there is no time to remember cell phone and laptop chargers, food and water for humans and pets. No time to pack, no time to think, no time no time notime. Not even time to wonder if you'll ever see your things again.
Only time to get out.
I'm sitting at my desk typing this. The 25 minutes to compose it, and think about it, has made my heart race. And I’m only imagining it. I don’t hear the shouting, I don’t smell the smoke, I don’t hear myself crying. I’m only imagining what it would be like to have 15 minutes to pack up a life and get to safety. And I haven’t even imagined what it’s like to leave everything – including pets – behind.