'We miss her': Fort McMurray firefighter grapples with daughter's death during wildfire evacuation

'We miss her': Fort McMurray firefighter grapples with daughter's death during wildfire evacuation

Cranley Ryan has no doubt that his daughter, Emily, was a casualty of a massive wildfire that forced residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., to flee their community.

The 15-year-old died in a head-on collision last May during the mass evacuation of the city and surrounding communities. Aaron Hodgson, 19, was also killed in the crash.

"I strongly feel that it was in direct relation to the fire," said Ryan, a deputy fire chief with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. "There have been some reports that there were no lives lost in the fire. And you know what? They weren't lost in the fire, but they were lost as a direct result of the fire.

"Personally, it pains me when people say there were no lives lost."

As Ryan was fighting the raging wildfire, his family was trying to escape. The blaze forced more than 80,000 people from their homes, in the largest evacuation in Alberta history.

During the frenzied exodus from the city, Emily and Aaron, her stepmother's nephew, moved from one Fort McMurray subdivision to another. They fled to an Anzac evacuation centre but were turned away. They spent a sleepless night in their SUV and the next day resumed the long drive down Highway 881.

The road was jammed with traffic as people tried to put distance between themselves and the burning city. 

Early on the afternoon of May 4, 2016, just outside Lac La Biche, the SUV crossed the centre line, collided with a logging truck and burst into flames.

Ryan was in Fort McMurray at the time, in the heart of the inferno. His crews had already been forced to abandon the Beacon Hill neighbourhood when flames crowned into the treetops and jumped the Athabasca River, threatening to envelop the entire city. Minutes blurred into hours as embers rained down, and the fire devoured entire streets in what seemed like minutes.

He was still there when news of the crash reached him. He rushed at once toward the scene. As he drove south, a long plume of smoke from the flaming wreckage was visible from kilometres away, a harbinger of what he feared most.

Both Emily and Aaron were pronounced dead at the scene. 

'We were chosen for a reason'

A year later, the only way Ryan can make sense of the tragedy is by believing that fate was somehow at work on that afternoon, that his family was destined to suffer because they were strong enough to endure such pain.

"Spiritually, we're strong," Ryan said, his voice cracking. "I would like to think that we were chosen for a reason.

"Maybe because we're strong as a family and we have the coping mechanisms and the support network in place to help us through a situation like that."

The family has coped with the loss by ensuring that Emily is remembered. A ribbon campaign was launched last spring. Community members and firefighters alike wore slips of orange silk to honour her memory. The family plans to use the funds they've received since to build a memorial park in Emily's name.

"It's exciting to have things like that to work toward and focus on," said Ryan.

"There was support from our fire hall family, our community, our actual families. It has meant a lot and it's very much what's getting us through and helping us cope."

Emily loved books and the outdoors. She was precocious and headstrong and "wise beyond her years," her father said.

"She would speak up for the weak, and stand up to the strong," he said. "She had attitude. And sometimes, as the dad of a young girl with attitude, it wasn't always easy."

Without her, the family home seems empty, he said, and fond memories can't take away the ache.

"We're a blended a family, there are multiple sets of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and cousins, and she loved being part of that family, and we miss her," said Ryan.

Emily was a triplet — the oldest by two minutes.

"She made sure the others knew that she was the oldest. She took care of them," her father said.

"She was the motherly one."