The strange thing about fire is sometimes you hear it before you see or smell it. Last fall my husband and I awoke shortly before midnight to the sound of what we thought was someone breaking into our home. He went downstairs to investigate the loud bangs and cracks while I cowered in bed. When he shouted, “Oh my God,” I grabbed a bedside lamp to use as a weapon. Then he yelled, “Fire!”We were living in our dream home. Designed and built for us five years earlier by an award-winning architect, our modern house in Calgary had been featured in a number of magazines. One of its most striking features was an open catwalk-style bridge spanning a two-storey mezzanine. On the second floor, it joined our bedroom to the back of the house, where our children slept.
When my husband yelled, I leaped out of bed and ran to my kids, shouting their names. As if in a horror movie, the 15-foot span that separated us suddenly seemed miles long. My 13-year-old son, Paul, awoke and stumbled out of his room. I ran with him to the top of the stairs. By this time I could see the enormous fire on our side porch, next to the glass wall at the bottom of the stairs. I could already feel the heat from the flames. (We had hired a company for an outdoor maintenance project, which had been under way for about a week, and may have caused materials to ignite on our porch.)
I told my son to run downstairs to escape out the back door. For a split second I wondered if my husband had already gotten our 11-year-old daughter, Alia. I ran to her bedroom to check, and there she was, standing blankly in the dark, awake but in a complete daze. By this time the fire was raging outside, directly under her room, which extended over the patio. I grabbed her and ran downstairs. The feeling of heat was intense as we ran by the glass wall, which was still holding the flames back. It was a close call: The glass soon gave way to the heat and blew in, filling the house with flames.
Our family raced out the back mud room door, where our two dogs were. We all got out safely, something our frantic neighbour out front hadn’t realized. He was incredibly brave, running up to our burning home and banging on our windows, worried we were still asleep inside.
What happened next was a blur. My sister, who lives nearby, had been awakened by the fire truck sirens. I called her from our neighbour’s home, shouting, “My house is on fire,” then hung up. I can’t imagine her shock. Fortunately my neighbour had the good sense to hit redial and tell my sister we were all safe.
Within five minutes, my sister and her family were at my side. While I stumbled around in tears, she spoke to the firefighters. We stood out front in our pyjamas and watched as our home filled with smoke and flames. My friend came and took my frightened kids to her house. A neighbour brought us water. Another put a pair of flip-flops on my bare feet. My sister then took charge. Telling us there was nothing more we could do at the scene, she rounded up my kids and my dogs, and we went to her home. My husband and I spent what was left of the night hugging our kids in bed. I was trembling from the shock of it all, but as I lay smelling my daughter’s hair, I had the clarity of mind to realize how much worse our situation could have been. We were safe.
Picking up the pieces
The morning after the fire, I drove my son to his final volleyball tryout at school. He had to wear my niece’s sweats and my nephew’s runners. I was wearing borrowed clothes and still smelled like smoke. We were quite a pair walking into the gym that morning, but he made the team, and we all made it through that first day.
Our home suffered such severe structural damage that it wasn’t safe for us to enter for several days. When we did, it was shocking. The soaring white ceilings looked like they’d been painted black. Evidence of the intense smoke and heat was everywhere. Framed family photos on our shelves were charred. My kitchen blender had melted on the counter, and the plastic ceiling fans in the bathroom looked like icicles. A restoration company was busy removing our belongings to try to clean what they could, including all of our clothing, which was saturated with smoke. So much of what we had, including art, family heirlooms and virtually all our furniture, was destroyed. The house itself was slated for demolition.
For the next 10 days, my family was cared for by my sister and her family. My kids put on a brave face, asking only if they could go to the house to get clothing or possessions they missed. We had to explain the house was now an empty shell. There was nothing left there of what had once made it a home. Nobody slept well those first few nights. I still struggle with a deep fear of fire, especially at night before bed, and I often wake up thinking I’ve heard a smoke detector go off. Both kids still have the occasional dream about the fire. They say they will never forget hearing me scream for them to wake up. My daughter feels more comfortable sleeping in sweats and a T-shirt — she never wants to be caught outside in just her pyjamas again.
In the days after the fire, our first priority was to find a new home. I began searching online for a rental home and found a modest house in a nearby neighbourhood. The kids were disappointed at first. “It’s small and old,” they said. It wasn’t fancy, but for the time being it fit the bill. Friends offered to make my kids lunches, lend us clothing, anything they could do to help. A group of girlfriends purchased readymade meals, delivered hot to our door, for the first week after we moved in. We slowly began to replace everyday essentials lost in the fire. (If you ever want to cure a shopping addiction, try repurchasing everything from pencils to an entire pantry. It is a mind-numbing task.) Keeping track of the receipts for insurance felt like a full-time job.
Out of the fire and into the flood
Nine months later we were settled in our rental house. The city was in the midst of a soggy June. As a reporter for CTV Calgary, I had covered widespread flooding in the city in 2005, and the rain this time didn’t seem much worse to me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
On Thursday, June 20, my husband, who’s an anesthesiologist at a local hospital, and I were enjoying a rare day at a lake about an hour outside Calgary when my sister called to say the city was evacuating our low-lying neighbourhood. The kids were just finishing their school day. Her son Jack had picked them up, along with my dogs, and taken them to her home on higher ground.
My husband and I raced back to our rental house and began moving everything we could lift up off the basement floor: our TV, electronics and small pieces of furniture. By this time there were police in our neighbourhood urging people to evacuate. We followed their instructions, grabbing only our laptops, some clothing and toiletries before hurrying to my sister’s home. We knew our kids would be anxious without us, and we wanted to join them as soon as possible.
When we woke up the next morning and turned on the news, we were stunned by what we saw. Entire neighbourhoods engulfed in water, sections of Calgary’s gleaming downtown core overrun by flooding. My husband and I watched in silence. We had never imagined the destruction would be so widespread. Our neighbourhood was singled out as one of those particularly hard hit. Here we were again, adrift. A change of clothes, my purse, my toothbrush: That was all I had with me. The flood waters were still too high and too dangerous for us to return to our home, but I had to get an idea of what we were facing. It was pouring rain when my sister drove me a day later to a ridge overlooking our neighbourhood. It was devastating: water up to almost the tops of garages, cars and lawns all washed away.
Some people defied evacuation orders and paddle boarded into their neighbourhoods to assess the damage. My husband and I opted to wait. We knew the bad news that lay ahead wasn’t going anywhere. Leaving the kids with my sister, he and I finally returned the next day. The rain had stopped, but our neighbourhood looked like a war zone. While most of the water had receded, evidence of its destruction was everywhere. There was a pickup truck bent around a Dumpster on our street. Lawn furniture was wedged in trees. Our backyard was full of debris carried there by the river located blocks away. The mud-covered roads were now clogged with vehicles as crews got to work helping pump the flood water out, and people poured back in to see what was left of their homes. The lucky ones only got water in their basements. Unfortunately many homes, including ours, had their main floors swamped too. Our hearts sank when we saw our rental house. There was a hole in the garage door, and when we opened the front door, we saw that the flood water had been more than two feet deep on the main floor, leaving everything in its path covered in a thick layer of oozing mud. Our dining room set was overturned and murky water still filled our basement. Floating in it: a jug of laundry detergent, a plastic bin of our belongings, a dead fish.
It takes a village — or a city
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi summed it up well. The Stampede was just two weeks away. When visitors poured into our city, he said, they might not see Calgary at its prettiest, but they would see it at its best. Residents young and old mobilized on a scale never seen before. One morning, the city put out a call for volunteers to meet at a local football stadium. It was hoping for about 600 people. More than 2,000 showed up.
As the waters receded, volunteers flooded into affected neighbourhoods. It wasn’t easy work. They helped hundreds of homeowners haul belongings and mud out of sewage backed basements. They undertook the back-breaking work of stripping waterlogged drywall and insulation. They hauled bags of strangers’ laundry home, then washed and returned their clothes. There were people handing out food and water on street corners. Volunteers set up barbecues to feed displaced families.
I took our kids to my mom’s home in Edmonton for two days rather than have them try to help at the flooded house. We felt that just nine months after they’d lost a home to fire, seeing most of what they owned now covered in sludge would serve no purpose but to upset them. We also kept them away for their safety. By now people were being warned to wear protective clothing and masks in flooded homes because of the muck and the mould.
While I was in Edmonton, friends and family rallied around my husband and got to work. Colleagues from the hospital where he works spent hours helping at the house before and after their shifts. They power-washed sports equipment and removed clothing and other items that could be salvaged. My sister grabbed keepsakes from my daughter’s main-floor bedroom, including her favourite stuffed animals, which were on her desk and spared from the water by mere inches. A dear friend who understands my love affair with beauty products came over and packed up all my makeup and face creams — no small task. A fire crew from Edmonton showed up at our front door. They offered to saw our basement futon in half to get it out the door. It was waterlogged and too heavy to lift. Some items — including our bikes — were found buried in the garage. They were completely caked in mud and difficult to recognize.
Through all of this my husband worked non-stop hauling out bag after bag of our ruined possessions from the basement. By the end of the week we had a mountain of muddy furniture, clothing and Christmas decorations on our front lawn. It looked like a garage sale from hell. My husband is strong and stoic and, unlike his wife, rarely complains. Through the whole ordeal, I saw him buckle only once. He had just opened a plastic bin to find stacks of family photos covered in mud. He looked at me and said, “We haven’t got one picture left of our kids as babies.” This was a task I could manage. I took every sludge-covered photo we had, stood at the sink and washed and disinfected each picture by hand, then painstakingly laid them out to dry. It took two full days, but it worked. Almost all our photos survived.
Good friends who were on vacation offered us their home for as long as we needed. We could no longer live in our rental. I tried to focus on practical tasks: kennelling the dogs, getting clothes for the kids, buying cheap duffle bags, yet again, to hold our meagre belongings. It felt eerily similar to the post-fire days. Our children took comfort in the fact, however, that this time they were not alone in their loss. Many of their friends’ houses were flooded too. They didn’t feel as isolated by this disaster, but they did ask me if I thought we were jinxed! I reminded them, and myself, that it could have been so much worse. We would bounce back and find another rental home to live in. For others in southern Alberta whose destroyed homes had represented their financial future, this flood was also an economic disaster.
I wanted to set an example for my kids. To show them, when something really terrible happens, have a cry or two, then move forward. Find solutions rather than ruminate on “Why me,” “Why now,” “If only.” For the most part I succeeded, but not always. At one particularly frustrating moment, arguing over, of all things, a broken remote-controlled toy car, I dropped the F-bomb on my son. I felt immediately ashamed, and very sorry.
Though I would love to protect them forever, odds are my kids will face their own crises in life. Maybe they will be as terrifying as a natural disaster or as devastating as a job loss. I want them to remember how we survived, even thrived, after losing a lot, not once but twice. The biggest lesson I have learned is to never fall in love with something that can’t love you back. Maybe that is a possession as substantial as a house, or as small as a piece of jewellery. I will admit to being very upset by the loss of a beautiful painting in our fire. It was a gift from my mother, and it symbolized her decades of great style and the years we lived together. It is gone, but she’s still going strong, and that’s what matters.
What’s next? Who knows?
We have found another temporary rental in Calgary and are truly just taking one day at a time. My children are amazing and resilient. They don’t feel sorry for themselves, although on occasion they will go to look for an item — a toy or a piece of clothing — and then realize it is gone.
We are now on an extended post-flood holiday, and we’ve taken up kiteboarding as a family — nothing like being pulled by a 30-foot kite across the sea to take your mind off your problems. We are planning nothing beyond spending time in a place where the water is warm and the wind is good. My long-term plan is to not make long-term plans, and to count my blessings.