Buzzing helicopters and sirens snapped Godelive Ohelo awake from her nap.
“I looked out the window and it was red, just red,” she says of the flames from the wildfires reflected in the smoke and clouds.
Ohelo got a call from her daughter Chanel’s school to come pick up the 7-year-old. But the fire racing through Fort McMurray caused a panicked traffic jam in the streets, with hundreds of people in cars trying to flee at once.
“The traffic was so jammed I had to leave my car. I walked and I picked her up with my niece,” Ohelo says. “We came back home and as soon as we got there we had a firefighter there and police that were saying grab what you can and leave now.”
Her daughter Chanel watched as the flames grew bigger. The little girl vividly recalls what she saw as they tried to race out of town, with the fire nearly surrounding them.
“I was scared, there were lots of houses burned,” Chanel says.
It is a scene painfully familiar to Godelive, and one she wishes her daughter would never have had to endure. Godelive left the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was seven, the same age her daughter is now. The mother escaped war, fire and gunshots in the African nation.
“It brings back those memories so bad,” Godelive says. “The last few nights for me I haven’t slept, I’m up all night. I realize that I’m a refugee again in a country that I thought I wouldn’t be a refugee [in], so it’s so heartbreaking.”
Godelive, her daughter and other family members made it safely to Edmonton and to the evacuation center with only a few of their belongings: some medicine, a travel bag of clothes and some identification. But she was so panicked; she failed to pack much for her daughter to wear. Godelive says the people of Edmonton were kind enough to give Chanel some fresh clothes. In a sweet moment of levity, she gestured at her daughter’s pants, which were almost a half a foot short, and smiled.
“I’m actually so happy to be standing here right now because I didn’t feel like I was going to make it,” Godelive says. “We were one of the lucky ones to escape right away… we drove right in the fire. Right in it.”
Chanel worries about what’s happening to her home in Fort McMurray after seeing so much of the town cloaked in dark smoke and bursting with orange flames during her frightening ride to safety.
“I’m scared if my house will be burned and also if my room, my stuff, my clothes,” she says. “If my school will be burned too.”
They are fears her mother can only try to contain. But it is hard, Godelive says, since she has no answers for her daughter.
“I don’t know if I have anything to go back to,” Godelive says. “I really don’t know.”