Waking up, getting the kids off to school and heading out the door to work was how Starr Harding started her day in Fort McMurray last Tuesday. But by mid-afternoon the mom of three was frantically trying to gather her children together to flee the wildfire threatening to incinerate the entire city.
Working at her job with Excel DHL Supply, just outside the city limits, Starr was alerted by her father Tony to the mass evacuation taking place in their neighbourhood. “He called me, said he was leaving, grabbed some essential things and jumped in the truck to go find the boys,” Starr said. “As he left our house, a neighbour’s place just a few houses down the street was fully engulfed in flames. He was telling me this and I was just so afraid. My kids schools are in our neighbourhood and I didn’t know what was going on. Here I was safe at work, but were they safe?”
Starr’s sons, 12 and 7, were in one school, and her daughter, 4, was close by. “While my dad was trying to find the boys, my friends Crystal and Sylvia were trying to find my daughter,” Starr said. “They went to her preschool but she wasn’t there, she had already been evacuated.She was in a car with her teacher, heading north.”
The boys had been bused off as well, and it took some time to locate them as they were moved from one evacuation centre to another.During those hours Starr’s phone was giving her updates as to the condition of her house. “I got notification from my alarm system on my cell phone,” she said. “Before the house lost power I was informed the firewall was breached and then the control panel was not functioning. We knew then the house was gone. My whole neighbourhood is just a pile of rubble.”
It took until Wednesday evening to reunite all five members of the family. Starr said it was a great relief to be together again. “Friends in Edmonton took us in,” Tarr said.”They were just wonderful, opened their home to us, fed us, did our laundry, I can’t thank them enough.”
The next day, with the wildfire growing to twice it’s size overnight, Starr knew the situation wasn’t going to improve, so the family headed to the coast to stay with Starr’s mom in Pender Harbour. “We are so lucky to have family out here to help us,” Starr said. “The kids will go to school in Pender Harbour for the rest of the school year. Their schools in Fort McMurray were all lost in the fire.”
Starr is exhausted and she fights back tears recalling the sense of helplessness, the frantic communications, the rushing, and the urgency of the situation. “It’s been very stressful. It feels like a bad dream, like it’s not real. I’m not hungry and haven’t been since I first heard the news. I’m not sleeping, I keep having nightmares and terrible dreams. But I just keep reminding myself and the kids that we’re all together, that’s the important thing; we’re safe,” Starr said.
Starr’s employer has been supportive and helpful, for which she’s very grateful. “They are trying to get us back up there to work now,” she said. “But for those of us who have lost our homes entirely, there’s no place for us to go back to, and there won’t be for some time. So, they are making arrangements for some of us to stay in Edmonton or Calgary and we’ll just fly in and out.”
Just one week after losing the house she bought only eight months ago, insurance claims have already been initiated and support cheques have been issued. “But until we can get in there and actually see what’s left, we don’t know for sure the real extent of the damage we have to deal with,” Starr said. “I find myself hoping, wishing, that I’ll find some photos at least, in the rubble. I had them stored in boxes, in big, thick stacks. Sometimes the pictures in the middle are okay. It’s not too high a hope?”
Starr’s youngest is mourning the loss of her beloved stuffy collection. “When she asked if they were all gone, I said yes, they were,” Starr said. “But miraculously, in his rush out the door, my dad grabbed one little handmade bear and put it in his suitcase. Safia was so, so happy to have that one little bear.”
For now the family is forging forward and trying to regain balance in another town, in another province. “It’s a long road ahead, and it’s true, we’ve lost everything we ever had,” Starr said. “But like everyone in Fort McMurray we also know all that stuff can be replaced. We made it out alive. We can get more stuff. I just want to rebuild my home and to have a life again. To the entire community of Fort Mac – We got this. We will rise.”
To hear more of Starr’s story, listen to CJMP News on Friday from noon to 1:00 pm on CJMP 90.1 FM or online at cjmp.ca/listen-live.