Covering a city in exile

I hate think pieces and personal essays, and I think most regular people do as well. When the copy is heavy with self-absorbed generalizations and scarce on commentary or insight, most people will stop reading.

But sometimes the personal essay has a place. After the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, our editors at Postmedia Edmonton wanted our newsroom to reflect on what it was like to cover a disaster while our own city burned.

For weeks, I drove across Alberta covering a displaced community sheltering in hotels and campgrounds, with strangers and family, and on cots in high school gyms and community centres. Personally, I am embarrassed to admit I doubted how generous people could be. 

My entry is below. You can read all our accounts at the Fort McMurray Today. Before reading my experience, please note I forgot to describe my ego exploding when two ex-girlfriends asked if I was alright within the same hour. Also, I was so busy that week I forgot my own birthday.

When I was a student, a few of my instructors told me a crisis was a crucible that would show who truly loved journalism.
On the morning of May 3, my friends in Abasand and Beacon Hill still had homes. Fire Chief Darby Allen would urge people to continue living their lives, but remember they were in a “serious situation.”
But as soon as that press conference ended, the fire turned towards us. By noon, smoke could be seen approaching the parking lot of our downtown office. The municipality was evacuating more neighbourhoods as ash began falling like snow.
Our sports reporter, Robert Murray, returned with photos of people fleeing the city in hastily packed cars. For many, it would be the last time they saw their homes.
Shortly after 3 p.m., the entire city south of us was evacuated, and the threat of immolation seemed very real.
Naively, we thought we could continue reporting from our homes. Instead, traffic forced us south down Highway 63. Robert would stay an extra half hour to upload as many photos as he could.
What followed were searing images of chaos — flames near our cars, the destruction of entire neighbourhoods, thousands of panicked residents fleeing bumper to bumper. All captured on our phones and cameras, and scribbled on notepads.
I still describe it as a miracle we found each other so quickly outside a gas station near the Fort McMurray First Nation, where hundreds had stopped for gas or to catch their breaths.
None of us knew if our homes were safe. Our only question was how would we keep reporting. Stopping was an option none of us entertained.
For the next week, I remained in Conklin with a reporter and photographer from the Edmonton Journal, covering as much as we could. Eventually, exhaustion set in and it was time to leave.
When I arrived at the Edmonton Journal that Saturday, Mark Iype, the city editor, handed me a bag with clothes my coworkers had bought me.
“You know, in these situations you really learn who loves journalism,” he said.