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What a wildfire survivor says she regrets not grabbing before leaving home

When a wildfire forced Carol Christian and her son Dylan to evacuate her Fort McMurray home in 2016, the two had 15 minutes to pack as much as they could into their car.

Christian left home with some sentimental items — gifts from her late father, a wood carving Dylan had made her in kindergarten — important paperwork and their cat, Clawed.

“I remember yelling to my son upstairs that we had to go,” Christian said in an email to CTVNews.ca. Dylan was 26 at the time. “He thought I was joking at first. He was on the phone to his girlfriend, who was in Ontario at the time, and she had been watching the news. He told her, ‘Mum’s losing it, she’s pulling things off the wall.'”

It wasn’t a joke though, as everything they left behind was lost in the fire, along with the house.

Speaking to CTVNews.ca over Zoom from Edmonton, amid another round of wildfire evacuations in Alberta on Wednesday, Christian said she learned some valuable lessons that spring.

Have things ready to go

Christian, a former journalist, lost some things in the fire that were especially painful to let go of, like her entire professional portfolio and a cherished necklace of macaroni and paper hearts — another kindergarten craft by Dylan.

Now, she keeps everything she might need or want, in the event of an evacuation, packed, organized and ready to go.

“I have an old suitcase under my bed and it has all my important papers,” she said. “That’s my mortgage papers, my insurance papers, my birth certificate, my passport, everything like that.”

She also has a bag full of memory sticks containing important archived files.

She suggested keeping other items like blankets, flashlights, water and snacks in a “go bag” as well. In the rush to get out the door in 2016, Christian and Dylan forgot food and water and had to sit through seven hours of smoke-choked traffic as trees burned on either side of the road.

Having all these things ready frees up precious time to gather other important day-to-day items, such as medication, prescriptions and any food, supplies or medicine for the family pet. Christian said it’s important to be organized in advance, because it can be hard to think clearly in the heat of the moment.

“We used to do the fire drills in school and things … But when it really happens for real, it’s something different,” she said. “After (the evacuation) people would start joking about the stuff they took with them, like, ‘I grabbed the cheese slices and my ski pants.'”

The Canadian and Alberta governments offer more advice on their websites on how to create an emergency plan, pack an emergency kit, plan for transportation, prepare financially, secure your home and evacuate safely.

Have your insurance bases covered

Once they were out of harm’s way, Christian got to work figuring out where they would stay and calling her insurance provider.

In addition to covering the cost to repair or rebuild a home damaged by fire, home insurance policies offer different levels of coverage for day-to-day costs you wouldn’t normally face while living in your own home. This is called additional living expense (ALE) coverage.

The burnt remains of Carol Chistian’s house are shown in the aftermath of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires. (Carol Christian)

Christian recommends anyone worried about having to evacuate their home check to make sure their policy includes sufficient ALE coverage.

“This is what’s going to pay for your hotel or lodging, your food, clothing,” she said, explaining that her policy’s ALE coverage even took care of her rent for more than two years while she rebuilt her house. “It’s really important for people to check their policies to make sure they have this additional coverage because it’s a huge help.”

She also learned that documenting the contents of your home in advance can save a lot of effort later if you lose those things in a fire or other disaster.

“Go through your home and take pictures of every room so that you see everything that you have,” she said. “Because when you’re making that insurance claim after, it makes it so much easier.”

Take care of yourself

During the evacuation in 2016, Christian says she felt a lack of control over the situation, grief over everything she was leaving behind and fear for her family’s safety.

“It’s terrifying to be sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic watching trees around you start burning. You start thinking your car is going to be your coffin,” she said. “And it’s hard because you have a sense … like you had no control, that you couldn’t keep your family safe, that you couldn’t keep your house safe, that you somehow failed.”

Christian realized once the ash had settled that she, like many of her neighbours, had been traumatized by the Fort McMurray wildfires. Beyond the initial fear for their safety and the material loss of their house and possessions, she and Dylan had lost their anchor and familiar place, too.

“When you lose your home in a fire, you’re losing a piece of yourself,” she said.

“During evacuation, you just want to go home and be with your stuff, to be with the familiar, but you can’t, and being in that limbo is very disconcerting for people because you’re not grounded anymore. It’s like you’ve lost yourself.”

In the years since the fire, Christian has talked through her experience with a mental health professional. She’s also trained in traumatology — a form of trauma counselling — and critical incident stress management. Through it all, she’s learned the importance of turning to friends, family and professionals for emotional support.

“Remember to look after yourself,” she said. “When it’s over, talk to each other and talk to a professional, if needed, to help you come to terms with this event and all the emotional and mental health issues that result from it.” 

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