Fort McMurray teen finally reunited with horse she rode to escape raging wildfire
Jada Polem’s flight from the fiery furnace of Fort McMurray on her horse Mya last May is still a vivid memory for the 16-year-old.
Mya and another of Polem’s three horses, Ellie, only returned to their barn in Fort McMurray Sept. 15 to be reunited with Polem. The horses were boarded at Whispering Boarding Stables in Darwell, 70 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, through the summer.
“Seeing all three horses – Mya, Ellie and Cameo – in the paddock together gave me the feeling that things were going to be normal again,“ says Polem. ”I think the horses were also relieved to be home.”
Residents of Fort McMurray had their sense of “what’s normal” and “home” changed forever earlier this year when mass evacuations were ordered as wildfires encroached on the city.
Jada became an Internet sensation when photos of her riding Mya out of town were posted online. Her ride from Tower Road in Timberlea to a place of safety some 15 kilometres away took almost three hours as Polem watched the smoke and fires draw ever-closer on the horizon. She says she was touched by moments when motorists would let her and Mya cross ahead of them.
“People were surprised when I rode past them,” she says. “I was a little scared, but I was focused on getting out.”
“I have a new appreciation of life, and not to take anything for granted. You can lose everything in a heartbeat,” she says.
Polem regards her family as very fortunate they had a house and barn to come back to. At the Clearwater Horse Club, located south of Prairie Creek on Rodeo Drive, where their horses are stabled, the fires destroyed 21 barns, and some 490 fence posts. The property line has stark, burnt-out trees as sombre reminders of the fires that raged through the area.
With so many homes destroyed and areas burnt, Polem feels there is still time needed before all is totally normal. Now everyone is focusing on rebuilding his or her life.
Billboards along the roads and signs outside businesses in Fort McMurray spell out the city’s welcome to the returning evacuees. Welcome Home FortMcMurray! Thank you for being resilient! We will rebuild! and Together we are #FortMacStrong! are some of the messages.
Asked how long she was away after the evacuation, Polem answers, “We were away for three months. I was away far too long.”
Polem’s parents, Steve and Tracey, and her brother Adam, returned home on June 5th. But Polem opted to finish Grade 11 in Corner Brook, NL, where her parents grew up, before returning to Canada at the end of July.
Having a home and barn to come back to doesn’t make it easier for Polem. “My biggest loss,” she says,” is seeing what everyone else went through and lost.”
She also finds it hard that some people have not returned to Fort McMurray. One of her closest friends moved to B.C.
She says she has flashbacks to the day when evacuation orders meant grabbing what you could and leaving the area as fast as possible, and there is still some trauma and pain attached to that.
Polem’s focus keeps shifting to the here and now though: Finishing Grade 12, getting a part-time job as a high school student, and spending as much time with her horses as possible.
Being reunited with her horses a few days ago has been a highlight in her life since the evacuation. Her face brightens when she says, “I think she (Mya) was happy to see me too!”
She recalls the day when the family realized they had no option but to leave, loading two of their horses in a trailer, with no space for Mya; and their consequent ride out of town. However, Polem is slowly replacing those traumatic memories with new, positive ones.
What I learned about myself is that you can overcome more than you think. Things can look bad in the beginning, but still turn around
“What I learned about myself is that you can overcome more than you think. Things can look bad in the beginning, but still turn around (for good) in the end,” she says.
Polem’s courageous ride inspired evacuees at the time and now it has also inspired Stella-Amoré Jansen Van Rensburg, a singer/songwriter from Calgary, to write and produce a song called I’ll Run You to Safety. It should be available late this month on iTunes.
It’s been a week and a half since Mya and Ellie were moved back to Fort McMurray to join the third horse, Cameo. Getting the horses back to Fort McMurray took time as the burned structures at the Clearwater Horse club needed to be cleaned and the Polems had to repair or replace fencing at their own barn. The return to a previous familiar routine of time at the barn after school and on weekends, seeing the horses together, are all huge steps toward “things turning around for good,” for the Polem family. None of it is taken for granted. One sees it in the way they relate to each other as a family.
And Polem’s bond with Mya grew stronger through all of this. Trusting each other is what brought them through safely.
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