By Tim Kalinowski
Covering a major natural disaster like we are seeing in Fort McMurray is one of the hardest things you can do as a reporter. Not only is the scale out of proportion to anything you would encounter on your daily beat, it is just so much bigger conceptually than anything your mind can encompass. Everything else being covered is either dropped or put on hold in the face of it.
During such times media outlets almost become another extension of the local response effort, disseminating information on all platforms as fast as they get it, sending reporters running to all quarters to get pictures and the latest information on the ground. We are also following up on public concerns and questions, and telling people how they can help. It’s all hands on deck and the pace is frantic.
I have had to report on some memorable disasters in my time. During the 2010 floods I was a reporter in southwest Saskatchewan and was on the scene in Maple Creek soon after the major impact of the flood hit the town. It was terribly sad to see a whole community flooded out, people wading through hip deep water in places to try and save their businesses or find their loved ones.
In 2012, I looked out north of Maple Creek on the worst wildfire I had ever seen in my life on the prairies. I remember vividly the nightmare of driving into farmyards completely incinerated by the blaze, trees and fences glowing red with ash on the windward side where every gust could send up an instant wall of flame. And, most vividly, watching bottom of fenceposts being eaten away by what looked like an attack of super termites as floating ash chewed them up before my eyes.
In 2013, I was on the ground with the Medicine Hat News covering the flood in the city. I remember whole neighbourhoods inundated by water, people evacuating riverside homes, (where I also lived at the time and had to evacuate myself), briefings and the tired faces of officials at the Emergency Response Centre as the flood continued to rise. The relief when it crested and began to drop. The heroism of local crane operators as they defended the Maple Avenue bridge from debris washed down from Calgary at great risk to themselves.
None of these disasters, as terrible as they were, even come close to what our media brothers and sisters in the Fort McMurray area have been dealing with the past week. I hope they are safe, and I hope they are all keeping strong as they carry out their jobs in the face of an unimaginable disaster.
Reporters, like first responders, focus on the moment in the midst of crisis. It is only later the magnitude of the disaster hits you.
I had nightmares about that Maple Creek fire for months afterward until I sought out and received the comfort of good friends who helped me work through it.
Wildfire seen up close has an overpowering awe and terror to it that haunts you like nothing else. I know those fleeing Fort McMurray will dream about the horror of it for months or years to come.