Aflame. (note to self under “ideas for painting titles”)

I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking at photos and news from Slave Lake, Alberta. The town of about 7,000 was devastated by a wildfire and much of the town was destroyed. Slave Lake is about 400km east of Dawson Creek and the first inkling we had of a blaze to the east was not on the news but in the wind – a smoky haze and smell that settled on the land on Sunday afternoon.

I’m sure we’ve all mentally evacuated before; cataloguing our possessions, making that mental list of what to keep or abandon. And I’m sure that for most of us, the lists look remarkably similar – photo albums, computer hard drive, a keepsake piece of jewelry, an heirloom quilt. I’d like to try to save my artwork, and my photo album collection is larger and heavier than most, thanks to my scrapbooking habit.

My grandparents suffered a house fire when I was two. The place burned so fast that all they were able to save was a set of twenty-year-old encyclopedias — the items closest to the door. The neighbourhood rallied around them and I had no idea that the dishes I ate off of at their house were donated, or that the family photos I pored over were a labour of love – collected by a sister or cousin who insightfully knew that the loss of Polaroid-documented memories would hit hardest. Grandma said that even a decade later she’d go looking for something, only to remember that it had been lost in the fire.

Now imagine an entire town in that situation. It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? There’s a sense that “it could have been me.” After all, we live on a forested hill, near a small town, and have experienced several very dry years. I sleep well when it comes to hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods & tsunamis. We may have long, cold winters, but there’s not a lot of surprises when it comes to the weather and our risk of natural disasters. I get nervous about fire, though. Which means I’ll be hauling many wheelbarrow loads of leaves this week as I rake the yard – one of the “assignments” my husband left for me when he left for Saskatchewan yesterday.

Scooter told me she wished it was our town that burned down. “Because that would be scary, and I like scary things!”

She likes fire for another reason, too.

We talk about the people of Slave Lake “losing everything,” and yet it’s untrue. Because we all know that the things that make life rich and full aren’t things at all. Losing everything just crystallizes that.

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