'It's where we belong': Yellowknife home again for family that fled Fort McMurray wildfires 1 year ago

'It's where we belong': Yellowknife home again for family that fled Fort McMurray wildfires 1 year ago

Sheila Champion says there are two devastating days that stick with her: 9/11, and last year's wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alta.

She was making Mother's Day flower holders at her condo in Fort Mac when her husband called on May 3, 2016.

"I looked and the sky was starting to turn orange," she said.

"My husband had said, 'get some things together. Just in case.'"

Like many people living in Fort McMurray at the time, that last-minute packing was all the Champions had when they left their home with a massive wildfire raging just a block away.

Champion says everything happened fast; she grabbed expired passports and toothpicks, underwear for her younger son and husband, but no clothing for herself.

"I don't even know what I was thinking, but I was just shoving it in a bag."

Not long after that, the Champions decided to head south and leave town.

That day, they made it to a relative's home in Chipman, about four hours away from Fort McMurray.

But over the next six months, the family moved five times — from relatives' homes, to RV parks, to rentals — longing for a place they could settle into again.

Champion says she knew it wasn't Fort McMurray.

"It just feels like there's a cloud there," Champion said, recalling some trips she made back to the community. "I just feel like I don't belong there anymore."

She knew where her family did belong: Yellowknife, N.W.T.

'It's home'

Champion lived in Yellowknife from 1998 to 2008, when she met her husband. She ended up raising her eldest children in the city and her youngest son was born there.

For the Champions, the move back North felt right.

"Coming back here, I think this is just where we belong. It's home. It's always been home."

Champion says her family loved Fort McMurray and she misses it, especially her neighbours, every day.

But Yellowknife seems to have something Fort McMurray didn't have, she says.

"Yellowknife is just different. It's smaller. You know, people have time to spend with each other," Champion said. "Fort McMurray, you know, people were so busy… and if you moved across the bridge you might as well have left the country... even though it was only a 10-minute drive.

"[In Yellowknife], it's slower… I just like the pace of life."

PTSD means reliving emotions

Champion says though her family is settling back into Yellowknife — and hopes to celebrate what they have instead of focus on what they lost — there's no way the memory of that day, one year ago, is going anywhere.

"You still kind of live that emotion every time you hear a siren, every time you see a fire truck, every time you smell smoke," Champion said, recounting what she calls her PTSD.

She says her youngest son, who was 10 when the wildfires hit Fort McMurray, is afraid of change; his mom abruptly took him out of school that day, him not understanding exactly what was going on.

All he brought with him were his two "woobies" and a train whistle.

"I think he's just now settling in [to Yellowknife]," Champion said. "He was pulled away from friends he's grown up with and for him those friends are his life, right?"

But she says he's made good friends again in Yellowknife and even got a new puppy back in January named Julia.

And Champion says what makes a huge impact for her is that her whole family — even her eldest, who are now 24 and 25 — are together and back in a place they want to stay.