Fort McMurray children processing wildfire trauma: ‘I’m still not sleeping right’

The sounds of the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation still reverberate in Emma Rose’s mind. In fact, out of all her memories of that day, it is the noises that stand out the most.

“My mom and I were next to an explosion,” the 17-year-old said. “We could hear it. It was only like 100 or 200 feet away across the highway.

“The radio, the beeping, hearing the cries on the videos, the popping of the fire. It’s terrifying.”

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Rose continues to see a counsellor once a week to help her cope with a trio of traumas. Last May – in a matter of two days – she fled the wildfire alongside 88,000 others, her home burned to the ground and her close friend Emily Ryan died in a collision.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray triplet killed fleeing fires was daughter of deputy fire chief 

“I never slept right for days, maybe even weeks. I’m still not sleeping right.”

Dr. Vincent Agyapong knows there are many others like Rose.

This fall, the University of Alberta associate clinical professor plans to survey 5,000 Fort McMurray students between Grades 7 and 12 to see how the wildfire evacuation and displacement has affected them. Agyapong will interview a cross-section of parents and kids as well to measure issues like depression, anxiety, substance use and resilience.

READ MORE: Mental health response to Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees to be assessed by province 

“The ultimate aim of the project is to be able to document the mental health of this population… People feel mental health issues go away,” Agyapong said, adding that isn’t the case.

Kevin Bergen, the principal of Fort McMurray Composite High School, has been surprised by how resilient students have been since returning to school. He says staff have needed to access mental health supports more than the students.

“I think it’s really because young people really don’t fully understand the scope of the types of trauma and chaos that happened that day. The adults did and it’s easier I think for the students — young children — to be able to move past that unless they see something that re-triggers the emotion of that day.”

READ MORE: ‘We need to be listening’: Fort McMurray schools prepare to welcome students back after wildfire 

The triggers have been unavoidable for some young people.

Virginia Poole, 16, was overcome by emotion recently after smelling burning wood.

“One night, my mom lit the wood stove and I went outside to look at the sunset,” Poole said. “I was like, ‘This is gorgeous. It’s amazing out!’ and I smelled the wood smoke and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’

“I didn’t think I would be affected by it and I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mom – I can’t.’ I couldn’t move.”

Poole thought she was okay, but in the lead up to May 3 this year, memories have been rising to the surface.

“This could happen again, I think that’s on everyone’s minds. We just don’t want it to happen again.”

READ MORE: ‘It takes a toll on a person’: Fort McMurray wildfire subject of case study on PTSD

Students have found a support network in each other.

Rose says friends just need to see a certain look on her face and they immediately ask if she’s okay.

While the support and counselling make her feel stronger, May 3 still looms loudly in her mind.

“It’s kind of hard not to be worried about it.”

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