Sunday, June 5, 2011

Leaving New York

Looking out my window on a cool crisp Sunday morning, I can clearly see the hills across the Clearwater River. There is nothing particularly unique about this except that on many mornings in May that was not the case. We had an abnormally dry and hot month that created optimal conditions for forest fires which produced a whole lot of smoke that rolled in with the wind, blanketing us for days at a time. And while the cooler weather (we actually had snowflakes on Friday) might have dampened the spirit of the flames, I fear we are not out of the woods yet as we have had only a trace of precipitation.

The Slave Lake fire of May 15th was a startling wake-up call for all communities that are surrounded by forest. I got wind that something was not quite right shortly after dinner that night. A colleague who used to work at Northern Lakes College in that community had posted something on Facebook: “The images I’m seeing coming out of Slave have me very worried”. I switched over to Twitter where I quickly discovered the scope of the emerging disaster. For the next six hours, I collated information from a number of sources – stories, facts, announcements, evacuation notices, photos and videos – and rifled them off through Twitter. The information those devastated residents were getting through social media channels became a lifeline on that fateful night when over 30 percent of Slave Lake disintegrated from the super-heat of a wildfire fueled by winds of over 100 mph.

By 12:30 am I was exhausted from pushing out information, hundreds of tweets, and called it a night. I woke up at my normal time of 6 am and put my memories in a blog that I posted an hour later. Slave Lake is Burning went viral almost immediately and to date has been seen by several thousand people. To put it into perspective, I consider anything over 100 visitors to a post to be wonderfully successful. Later that day I had a call from a CBC National News producer wondering if I had a pipeline to the Mayor of Slave Lake as I seemed to be one of the guys “in the know” the night before. Sadly, I couldn’t be of assistance in that regard.

We have a number of fires still smoldering in our region, including the second largest fire of the past 50 years in Alberta, the Richardson Back Country fire. This morning, it is approaching 400,000 hectares in size, in a largely unpopulated area just south of Fort Chipewyan and north of the northernmost oil sands developments. The army of people and resources battling the seven active fires surrounding us is impressive: 290 firefighters from Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and local industry; 29 helicopters; 62 pieces of heavy equipment including water trucks, nodwells and bulldozers; 42 command and support staff; and the largest water bomber in the world – the Martin Mars, based at Sproat Lake near Port Alberni where I lived in the early 1990s.

It was a little unnerving leaving Mom and Dad in charge of the boys in the midst of smoke and the potential of more fires, as we flew off for our three day adventure in New York City. But all’s well that ends well, and they were able to enjoy some precious time with Dylan and Ben. We had left late Wednesday night and arrived back home near midnight on Sunday. Smoke was still present but the fires were nowhere to be seen and not only was everyone back home content, several items around the yard were freshly painted including the tree house, now a vibrant green.

New York City was AMAZING; there is no other way to describe it. You can read about our experiences if you feel so inclined by visiting the Middle Age Bulge blog. I enjoyed trying to put into words why it was so incredible. I hope we go back on a regular basis, cause it’s just that good.

We are grateful that Mom and Dad were able to come up. The fact that they are so healthy - able to travel and keep active - is something we don’t take for granted. Most importantly, it gave the boys a chance to get to know their grandparents a little bit more, and vice versa.

As we were on the last leg of our journey home I got the news that Mr. Chernoff has passed away. He was our high school physics and chemistry teacher, a wonderful character, and the father of our friend Wayne. Based on the reaction of no less than four people on Facebook who had seen him smiling and full of life the day before, it was a sudden and unexpected passing. Mark Herbster commented that he had quite a discussion with him at a garage sale on Saturday morning. He left us at 4 pm the following afternoon sitting on the sofa. He will be remembered for this sense of humour, his love of science, and dedication to his family and community.

This is a picture that was taken on one of our last days of Grade 12 in 1985. Mr. Chernoff is at the “Mike” with myself, Warren, Randy, Jeff and Byron in the back.

What are the impressions and memories we will leave behind after we’re gone? It’s a sobering question, but one worth asking. I would argue that you don’t need to be rich, famous or powerful to make a lasting impact. In the story, Remembering Julius, you will discover how one moment of kindness still resonates after 70 years.

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