'Childhood erased': Fort McMurray graphic novelist depicts wildfire's traumatic legacy

A year after Rob Hickey's childhood home was gutted by the Fort McMurray wildfire, the illustrator is using art to overcome the grief.

The Fort McMurray native has published a new digital graphic novel to mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster.

With striking imagery and candid verse, Where the Heart Is chronicles Hickey's horrific flight from the burning city, and the overwhelming despondency Hickey felt after returning to a home utterly destroyed by the inferno.

"It felt like having my childhood erased," said Hickey, 25, who identifies as agender and prefers to use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them.

"You fill your home with things that you love and things that mean something to you. So losing that is kind of like losing a piece of your life." The first panes of the graphic novel speak to the terror of the mass evacuation, and how the destruction continues to haunt Hickey.

"I lost count of the amount of times I started writing this story before promptly abandoning the script. I would get stuck in the details of the day and the memories would overwhelm me," read the first pages of the novel.

"I can't keep forcing myself to relive it … I need to skip to the end."

But Hickey doesn't skip to the end.

The 16-pane novel details flashbacks, sleepless nights and the shame of losing everything Hickey once cherished.

"If grief was an ocean, my home was a shipwreck," reads a part of the novel that depicts a lonely figure amid a field of ashen matchstick trees, Hickey's own neighbourhood reduced to rubble.

On May 3, 2016, Hickey rushed to their parents' Beacon Hill home to help their mother pack her belongings. As they made their escape, the highway was crawling with panicked evacuees and the treeline was a crackling wall of flames.

In a matter of hours, the Hickey family home, along with large swaths of the south-end neighbourhood would be annihilated by fire. In the end, the wildfire would destroy nearly 2,400 structures and force the evacuation of more than 88,000 residents.

'Extreme state of denial'

A return to the city provided little relief for Hickey.

The messages about resiliency and a community rebuilding from the ashes rang hollow. Hickey struggled to find any hope.

When the skeletal remnants of the family home and its once-lush backyard were bulldozed away, it was gutting.

Though the house Hickey shares with their partner was still standing, the fire had robbed the artist of something invaluable and Hickey's mind refused to comprehend the losses.

"It was just an extreme state of denial," Hickey said.

"I could see it in front of me, but at the same time, in my mind, I could see 20 years of me growing up in that house. It was a feeling of, how can I feel the house so vividly and yet it's not there?"

For years, Hickey has suffered from mental health issues and the trauma of the evacuation triggered a dissociative episode which made the destruction of their home feel beyond surreal.

Hickey would visit what remained of their childhood home often, trying to claw their way back to reality.

"The dissociative disorder also triggers memory issues so having mementos and photographs is extremely important to me," Hickey said.

"I just felt like I was having an out of body experience for a long time after the fire."

Hickey said writing the novel has allowed them to feel less powerless against the lingering psychological trauma. Hickey taken control of the narrative, and re-framed their story as one of resilience and strength.

Though Hickey's story begins in a place of despair, in the end, the personal chronicle provides a fragment of hope.

As illustrated in their book, Hickey found solace in a tiny vine that, despite all odds, survived and flourished in the blackened rubble of their in childhood backyard.

It's the same strength Hickey's parents have demonstrated, as they rebuild and put down roots in a new Alberta community.

"These vines had been burnt, smothered, trampled and lived, despite everything," reads the final page of the novel.  "Something terrible happened. Sometimes terrible things happen. Sometimes you just lose."

"But maybe, despite it all, you can keep living. Maybe that's enough."