by Andrew Meintzer
Almost everyone in my home town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada recently underwent disastrous wildfires. The largest scale of destruction in the entire history of our province has coincided with the mandatory evacuation of the city. I consider myself among the lucky people because I so far have a home to go back to, and I found a place to stay within the same night of the carnage, along with my parents, pets, and most treasured possessions.
A large amount of residents have not been so fortunate. I have friends whose houses have burnt to the ground. As of now, 80% of the homes in the area of Beacon Hill are completely demolished, and other sections of town have been engulfed in walls of flame but suffered less damage. My own neighborhood of Thickwood, along with Timberlea, has so far seen only minimal conflagrations, but the wreathes of fire are expected to worsen as I write these words.
Due to the extreme traffic congestion of evacuating over 60 000 people, minutes of driving turned into hours, and many ran out of gas and had to camp out in the middle of highways over night. Those routes to the oilsands camps North of town, as well as the ones leading South to Edmonton, the nearest major city, were so gridlocked that travel times doubled for some, and tripled or quadrupled for most.
It was a surreal experience. I had trouble believing that the danger was so serious. No one was expecting fire warnings to lead to a full scale evacuation. At first, news reports were sensationalized, and some people were getting overzealous and panicking. However, it turned out that their caution was entirely warranted. By the time we left the neighborhood of Thickwood, we could see mountains of smoke from the nearest fire in the area of Wood Buffalo. Ash was beginning to rain down, and the sun turned red from the haze.
We drove along the roads and highways in and out of the cities, seeing police blocking off roads and directing traffic, and people camping out in their cars on the side of the roads from running out of gas. One of my friends saw flames leap across the highway, as if in some form of supernatural attack. Another sent me a video of a water bomber dropping water on the mutating miasma mere hundreds of feet from where he was stuck in traffic, with little effect. He also showed me a picture of fires licking the edges of the highway down which he was driving, quickly swallowing the surrounding trees. Watching seas of people scrambling around and fleeing from chaos, seeing reports of gas stations exploding, and hearing at least three actual emergency broadcasts, a small part of me was losing the battle against my persistent calmness under pressure. I was reminded of every apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movie and T. V. show. The Walking Dead, 2012, Dawn of Dead; any work of art in which society collapses and descends into chaos. It would have been easy to become fixated on the darkness of this tragedy, and many were.
But there was one light that shone defiantly through the enveloping blackness of these events. As a person who sometimes finds it easy to be pessimistic about humanity, I was repeatedly overwhelmed by the unadulterated altruism of friends and complete strangers alike. One drove me to my home, which was not yet in the evacuation areas, even though he should have been packing, because his was. Some family friends lent us their truck to use to escape danger. My Dad’s boss and coworkers bent over backwards to find us a place to stay for the night, yet still failed due to the influx of people seeking safety, which clogged the roads. After driving around for hours, only to be turned away repeatedly, one man who had never met us before saw that we were a family with two pets seeking refuge, and that my Mom is disabled, and gave us his room, even though that was against the rules of the camp. He also gave us the book he was reading, and slept in his truck for the night. His name is Fred, and none of us will ever forget him. The next day, one random stranger brought my Mom coffee, another gave us food, and everyone we came across was endlessly helpful; assisting us with carrying luggage and our dog, and ensuring we were fed, as my Mom is diabetic. We then were able to move to the camp where my Dad works, and get two adjoining rooms so my exhausted mother could lie down immediately, I wouldn’t have to sleep on a floor, and our pets wouldn’t be so cooped up. Then, three more men who had never met us before, and were there for work, voluntarily helped us carry our pets and treasured possessions to our rooms.
The way that people have reacted throughout this experience has really helped to put life in perspective for me. Their behaviour could easily have swung in the opposite direction. They could have been selfish, and focused only on the preservation of themselves and their immediate families, which is often what happens in movies and T.V. shows. But that is not how the majority of people seem to react when disaster truly strikes. They are working together to ensure that everyone gets what they need, and no one is left empty handed. It takes a lot to give me hope, but my experience in this chaos has. To me, it shows that even though a large number of people can sometimes appear to be selfish, dumb, and materialistic, when the shit hits the fan, we can by and large be relied upon to be decent, and help to ensure the survival of everyone in need. I think that the colloquialism, “Empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight,” is often true. But when pure danger strikes under extreme circumstances, the average person can be relied upon to do what is good and just. This seems like as pertinent evidence as any of humanity’s innate moral compass. We don’t all have the same view of what is right and wrong, but the majority of us know when it is more important to be selfless rather than selfish. This is how altruism can shine through the darkness of tragedy.