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Fort McMurray fire experience renews Yarmouth counsellors' desire to help

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

YARMOUTH, N.S. – When it was time to decide where they wanted to live, Mike and Joan Donaldson chose to return to Yarmouth, a move that had its genesis in last year’s wildfire in Fort McMurray.

For more than a month after the fire, the Donaldsons – who had spent a couple of years in the Alberta city working as counsellors – were part of a team of professionals helping Fort McMurray residents cope with the reality of loss and devastation.

“People were just trying to process what was going on,” Mike said.

The Donaldsons lost their apartment, which suffered major smoke damage, and they were among the thousands of Fort McMurray residents who were evacuated.

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 were not done with the city just yet.

For more than a month after the fire, the Donaldsons – who had spent a couple of years in the Alberta city working as counsellors – were part of a team of professionals helping Fort McMurray residents cope with the reality of loss and devastation.

“People were just trying to process what was going on,” Mike said.

The Donaldsons lost their apartment, which suffered major smoke damage, and they were among the thousands of Fort McMurray residents who were evacuated.

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 were not done with the city just yet.

“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.

Fort McMurray fire

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. In this regard, Mike acknowledges that he and Joan were far more fortunate than many others in Fort McMurray.

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 couple has three grown children attending university in different parts of Canada, one of whom had been living in their Bedford residence.)

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

They say 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 say they were impressed with how the community responded.

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

Said 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 added, “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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