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Fort Mac: Yarmouth couple forever tied to others because of the fire

Joan and Mike Donaldson in their new office in Yarmouth.
Joan and Mike Donaldson in their new office in Yarmouth.

YARMOUTH, N.S. – As the one-year anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfire drew closer, Mike and Joan Donaldson of Yarmouth found themselves thinking a lot about their time in the Alberta city and the work they did to help people affected by the fire. 

“Fort McMurray has been on my mind a lot this past week,” said Mike on May 1. “I have reached out, over the past few days, to a few of the people who I had worked closely with throughout the weeks after the fire ... I find my mind returning to some rather intense memories.”

Fort McMurray residents flee the city after flames encroach neighbourhoods.

The Donaldsons have been back in Yarmouth since last fall, but in the spring of 2016 they were part of a team of professionals helping Fort McMurray residents cope with the devastation and loss caused by the fire.  The Donaldsons had spent a couple of years in the Alberta city working as counsellors when the fire happened.

“As the team lead of the Psycho-Social Mental Health Response Team for the city, post fire, I was part of the Regional Emergency Operations Center team that met three times daily to respond to needs as they developed,” Mike said. “Those daily briefings were in the midst of 15-18-hour days.”
FULL COVERAGE: Fire in Fort McMurray: One year later

The experience helped create some pretty close relationships among team members.

“We have stayed in touch, checking in occasionally to see how we are each doing, as we have all moved on to different positions,” Mike said.

Sharing her husband’s perspective, Joan said co-workers became more like family members, such was the bond that developed between people as a result of the fire.

“I remember thinking, ‘will I ever see those faces again? I am not ready to say goodbye to this work we do, who we are as a team,’” she said. “I will forever be tied to these people because of what we went through.”

Fort McMurray fire

In an interview earlier this year, the Donaldsons spoke of how their Fort McMurray experience helped them decide to return to Yarmouth. The Donaldsons lost their Fort McMurray apartment, which suffered major smoke damage due to the fire, and they were among the thousands of city residents who were evacuated.

A SURREAL EXPERIENCE

Mike and Joan used the same word, “surreal,” – saying it almost in unison – when describing what it was like to drive through the fire to get out of the city.

Said Joan, “I was going to say ‘terrifying’ but it wasn’t because we were together. I think if I had been alone, it would have been worse.”

However, although they were now out of Fort McMurray, the Donaldsons weren’t done with the city just yet.

Fort McMurray fire

“We were laying in bed just kind of in a state of exhaustion and shock and Mike’s boss called and said ‘would you be willing to come back and work at the second evacuation site?’” Joan said. “Being able to go back, for me, was a huge thing. It felt right to go back.”

Mike’s role was coordinating mental health services, which would be available to work with residents returning to the city.

“At one point we had somewhere around 130 mental health professionals on the ground,” he said.

It ended up being five weeks of long, gruelling workdays and, by the time they left in June, the Donaldsons were physically and emotionally drained. They returned to Bedford, where they still had a residence from the time they had lived there prior to going to Alberta.

When they sold their Bedford condo last fall, they had a decision to make. Where were they going to live? A decade had passed since they had left Yarmouth. Mike is from this area. Joan is from Saskatchewan but had lived here long enough to consider Yarmouth home.

The Donaldsons came back to Yarmouth in November and now run a counselling agency on Cliff Street (Nova Counselling & Consulting).

They said their experience with the fire in Fort McMurray gave them a new perspective on life, an appreciation for what really matters. Yes, the fire was devastating, but they said they were impressed with how the community responded.

Seeing different organizations come together was “absolutely amazing,” Mike said.

Added Joan, “I think it’s renewed our desire to help people ... to bring healing into people’s lives, because life can change in a second.”

Of their return to Yarmouth, she said, “To be back here with people we love and who love us, it just feels so comforting. It feels so right.”

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