Fort McMurray is burning.
A wildfire rages at the edges of town. Right now. Right now my acquaintances are checking in on Facebook, I’m safe, I’m safe. Right now the fire has become a “crown fire,” the tops of conifers blazing, perverse Christmas trees blossoming with flames a hundred metres high, sparks crossing first the Athabasca River, then the Clearwater River and Highway 63, the only road out of town.
When you drive to Fort Mac, you gas up at the north edge of Edmonton, turn onto 63, and laugh and smile at the sign a few kilometers later, LAST GAS FOOD SERVICES FOR 250 KM. I’m guessing at the kilometres—I remember the sign, but Google Maps won’t give me directions right now. Google images won’t give me the sign in the first few screens, and I can’t scroll through any more action-movie images of propane tanks exploding in front of burning trees.
It’s not like an action movie.
No-one is billed above the title—no-one has a guarantee of getting out. Plans for a sequel are uncertain.
Perhaps the theatre, where my circus company did our adults-only show, is burning. Perhaps the college parking lot where we did the outdoor family-friendly show is peeling up in great sheets of asphalt rolling on itself like poorly-laid contact paper in the bottom of a drawer. Maybe the hotel’s gone now. The three casinos. The giant sports arena complex where we played New Year’s Eve.
Almost everyone is out—unlike Key West natives facing down hurricanes, Canadians politely leave when asked. Everyone has gone north, in a slow, bizarre recessional of bumper-to-bumper traffic and cars stalling out from lack of gas. Two of the gas stations in town have burned; the lines were long enough on the others to weigh, gas up and burn in town, or run out and burn on the highway?
Right now it is my borrowed tragedy. The event over which I have no influence, no control, and which only peripherally affects me, but nonetheless makes me weep when the pictures come on.
I stand in another theatre over two thousand miles away and find my light. I wait patiently for the technical director to call “OK, next cue please!” so I can move. There is a lot of thinking time, and I wonder about my own recessional. My house in Kalamazoo, full of boxes, some unopened since moving there in 1998. My mother’s spare closet in Florida, full of formal dresses—prom, debut, New Year’s Eve. Too nice to throw away, no longer useful. My home in Dubai, where secondhand books are stacking up, where I really should let go of the shoes I replaced.
Twenty minutes to pack. You can take what you can carry. Not family photos—my computer covers that. I no longer have pets. I would leave the circus equipment behind, and that’s a bittersweet relief, knowing it no longer matters. Ten minutes, perhaps, fire or flood or cataclysm licking the edges of the city. Revolution is not unlikely. Call it five minutes. Fortunately, I’m almost always packed anyway. Grab the carry-on with clothes and bath stuff and the book I’m reading now and the book I’m writing now and my Ganesha icon (“If you care about it, put it in your carry-on” I chant before every flight). Sling on my laptop bag with notebook, headphones, purse, cash, cards, passport.
I would grab my second passport. And my wedding dress, blue and simple and actually wearable again.
And then I’d run.
Back in the basement in Kalamazoo, I survey still-packed boxes and old costumes and the hats I used to look good in. What if there was a fire? I ask myself. Would you bother to replace this, or would you keep the insurance money?
It’s not as easy as it sounds on paper. But I do set out bags and boxes, a little at a time, make a pile for Goodwill and one for trash, and start throwing things away.
What would you take with you?