Residents forced to evacuate the Alberta city of Fort McMurray during the recent devastating wildfires are slowly returning home with baited breath and trepidation. Their homecoming – bittersweet. There will surely be nightmares and residual symptoms of anxiety for all those affected for time to come. After the media spotlight turns away from the city, many people will forget. This is the nature of the media as well, as they converge around ground zero of any given natural disasters. 24-hour blanket coverage. First-hand accounts from victims. Footage. Lots of footage. In the context of the Fort McMurray fires, the trauma is not confined to those who consider Fort McMurray permanently home, but also tendrils out to that segment off folk who live in McMurray on a temporary basis; those residents who travel in to work in the myriad of ancillary jobs and trades hosted by the oil and gas industry.
In my hometown, there are many permanent residents who routinely pack up and fly out to make the temporary move to Fort McMurray taking their specialized skills and expertise with them along with a few weeks’ worth of clothes. They, however, are forced to leave some very important parts of their lives behind. Oil sands orphans and widows. The majority of folks I know personally that work ‘out west’ are mostly male, although the number of women in the trades who trek out for work are on the rise, they are younger which allows for more opportunities to take advantage of travel.
I’ll see my neighbour for a week or so. His truck will be in the driveway. There are massive tires on it. If I could manage to sit on a tricycle, I’m sure I would be able to peddle right under it from bumper to bumper. We give each other the universal ‘hey man’ dude-greeting when we bump into one another, as our yards are adjacent. Then one day the truck will be gone. When the truck is gone, it means he’s gone. For his kids, this means ‘dad’s gone’, for his wife, it means that ‘hubby’s gone’ and for his parents, it means their son is “gone on another run.” Then I’ll pull in the driveway and the truck will be parked next door, and I’ll think ‘that was a quick five weeks.’ But the nature of time is relative. His five weeks away from family would surely be longer for him and those close to him, than his absence would be for me. Time either flies or drags depending on your personal relation to it, since our brain perceives time through how we interact with our environment. But that’s a whole other bag of tricks.
Transient workers leave their heart at home but bring their skills with them. It’s a difficult situation, compounded for those with spouses and children. For those not tethered by heartstrings, who are just laying the foundation to their career, these opportunities to work away from home in the oil sands, or the backwoods or miles away at sea or underground working closer the earth’s core than the natural light of day, can be considered as low hanging fruit. Strike while the iron’s hot. Make hay while the sun shines and so forth.
For those leaving behind family and friends, the mood on the flight back to the site is often not the same as the mood on the flight home, even though the plane itself is likely the same; it’s only the headings that have changed. Headings make all the difference in the world for those working away.