As thousands of Fort McMurray residents return home after last month’s massive wildfire, one family is experiencing a loss like no other.
“Our home is just…it’s here…it’s just a little emptier than most,” said Cranley Ryan, the deputy fire chief in Saprae Creek, a tiny hamlet outside of Fort McMurray.
As Ryan was fighting the raging wildfire last month, his family was fleeing it. They had made their way to Anzac on the evening of May 3, but the evacuation centre was full. So they camped out overnight and then started driving down Highway 881 toward Lac La Biche the next day. Ryan’s 15-year-old daughter Emily, a triplet, was riding with her cousin, 19-year-old Aaron Hodgson, when their vehicle collided head-on with a logging truck and burst into flames.
“When Emily died it wasn’t like…normally, if someone died in your family, you’ve got your support groups and stuff like that,” Lucas Ryan, Emily’s triplet brother, said. “But once the fire happened everybody was displaced so I didn’t have my supports – sports and stuff like that – and Abby didn’t have her friends. So for the first couple of weeks, we were kind of …”
“Alone,” Abby – the youngest of the triplets – said, finishing her brother’s sentence.
Friday marked the first time the Ryan family has been home since the evacuation. Their house is in Saprae Creek, a hamlet just outside of Fort McMurray. The area was badly damaged by the wildfire and dozens of people lost their homes. The Ryans’ house is still standing but there is no question a big part of it is missing.
“We’re at a familiar spot but it doesn’t feel like home,” Abby said. “And really, it hasn’t felt like that for the last month because we’ve been displaced and without her.”
“Coming back without her…it’s different, that’s for sure,” Lucas said with his head bowed. “But we’ve kind of come to peace with the fact she isn’t going to be here physically but she’ll always be here in spirit, right?”
The family spent about an hour going through the basement, which was badly damaged by water. That’s where the kids’ rooms are and where Emily’s room is.
“Most people, you have a tragedy, you come home that night, sleep in your own bed, cry your eyes out in your own pillow,” Melonie Matthews-Ryan, Emily’s stepmother, explained. “And we’ve been putting that off for 30 days. So in a way I think I’ll sleep better than I have in a month.”
To help in the healing process, an orange ribbon campaign has been launched in memory of Emily. Orange was her favourite colour. Dignitaries, firefighters and area residents have all been wearing the ribbons as a way to honour her.
“It started out just as the five or six of us wearing them to church and now everyone we see is wearing one,” Abby said.
“Even the premier was wearing one. That was pretty cool,” Lucas said with a smile on his face.
“After being across the country, you tell the story so often you almost get tired of it,” Emily’s dad said. “So it’s nice to see that ribbon when somebody comes up and gives you a hug and you say ‘I’ve got nothing to say,’ and you don’t have to. You just wear your ribbon for us.”
“Just wear the ribbon,” Melonie said as she fought back tears.
Melonie and Cranley take some comfort in the fact Emily was a triplet. They say that has made this devastating loss just a little bit easier because, in a way, they still get to see her.
“Emily isn’t just Emily. Emily is Abby and Lucas,” Melonie said. “We look at Lucas and he’ll say some corny joke and that’s Emily. We’ll look at Abby and the way she grins, it’s Emily. So part of Emily lives on with the two of them and that’s the legacy. She’s in everything the other two do.”
The family also has one more request and it’s a small one. Don’t dog ear your books. Emily loved reading and was always so careful with her books. The family thinks she would be smiling from above knowing others are taking care of theirs as well.