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Emily & Aaron: A Beautiful Legacy

Melanie and Cranley Ryan
BY Melanie and Cranley Ryan
(2 votes)

Emily Ryan and Aaron Hodgson died as part of the larger evacuation during the 2016 wildfire, and because of that, we have had so much support.  In fact, lots of days it’s our family, neighbours, friends, and community that give us the courage to keep fighting through our grief to stay positive for our children.  This support comes everywhere we turn. If we go to the grocery store people recognize Cranley both in and out of uniform, and come up to us and offer a few words of how much our story helps push them to stay positive in the midst of their our battles over property and insurance.. People in our community are more compassionate than ever before, and we feel it in our family every day.

The journey of our last year of grief has been summed up in a handful of updates on social media.  We gain strength in our ability to have so many family and friends stay connected to our new reality with all of its up and downs. Our biggest strength, other than our faith, has been our community of Fort McMurray and the people that live here.

Some wonder why we have been so public about our loss.  I’ve put a lot of thought into this lately, and it’s taken some time, but I do have an answer. For the most part, we are just an average married couple proud of being a blended family with five children as well as being a firefighter family. People can relate to us because of our simple life, but none of that mattered after May, and it’s certainly not why we share our story. More than any of this, we have become a part of another group that we never signed an application or enrollment forms for and no fees were required.  On May 3rd our community all experienced the start of a mass evacuation, and with that, we each secretly joined a club that will forever join us together.

We all have different stories but yet there is something that makes it the same. Some took Highway 63, I took Highway 881 the only other route out with my children, parents, and four cars full. I left my husband behind to work and I like so many drove through flames and fire, scared and tired after more than 30 hours awake. We were all making the best of a horrible situation. We made calls across the country to let loved ones know we were ok and we loaded our kids up with whatever junk food we could get our hands on if we were lucky enough to come across a store or volunteers with food. Anxiety was at its peek for us all including our children who were piled into our vehicles with pets and treasures loaded to the limit. Loved ones watching and waiting for news across the world. You were either ahead of me or behind me but everyone realizes without saying it out loud, if you were on the road that day my story could be yours. It’s the same as when we talk about the fire taking one street and leaving another.  It was a dice roll for most of us, and we all know that. Thousands of family homes are gone forever and so are Aaron and Emily. Who decided which children, which streets, which homes, which neighbourhood?

It’s the unpredictable facts of life that make it easy to share our story with the world because we feel compassion from the people that understand we were apart of something bigger than us, a wildfire, a beast! I learned my most important life lesson on May 4th. Forced to watch the fatal accident of two beautiful children, -- I learned that I am not in control!  Life and death are bigger and stronger than me. It can step in and change everything right in front of your eyes and you can not stop it. People that lost everything including precious keepsakes of their children’s lives can take comfort that at least their children are safe. I, on the other hand, take comfort that God somehow spared a few of Emily’s treasures for us to hold on to with the help of the Saprae Fire Department. Different losses but loss is loss which makes people more compassionate. Together we get each other through. Before May we were just distant neighbours who shared a city but now we share a piece of life and of history. We have and will continue to meet at grocery stores, doctors offices, schools, and parks and although we may never exchange names we tell our stories and we become connected and somehow it helps.

The other thing that has helped us as a family is putting our time and energy into wanting to create a legacy for Emily and Aaron. As we started talking to other people who have lost children to tragedy we realized in order to find peace we need to find a way to give back in their honour.  At first, we thought that might be as simple as putting a nice bench in a park here in town that people could go with a book and coffee and relax. Turns out the one thing Emily and Aaron both had in common other than being related was their passion for reading. So fittingly before Emily’s memorial service as people asked to give we started a trust fund for what we thought at first would be something small like a bench in a park already standing somewhere in town. Within a few weeks, we realized we needed to dream a little bigger as interest started pouring in. Now looking back we were just putting one foot in front of the other for most of the summer as the shock of May loomed over us. Thankfully some of our strong friends and community members took our spark to give something and helped it grow. By Christmas, our bench idea had grown into the possibility of a park. How humbling as parents to see this idea grow.

You don’t want to let go of a child but if the day comes you will fight with every fibre to help carry their spirit and the park gives us hope that neither child will be forgotten in Fort McMurray.

The RMWB, recovery committee and private and corporate sponsors have and continue to come forward to support this growing idea and are currently turning it into a plan that will come together and hopefully be started this year. 

Currently we are hoping that the one-year anniversary will give us some closure and also renew our strength to start a larger campaign to continue to grow funds for a memorial park. We see it being not just for our kids but a place to pay respect to all who helped fight to save our hometown. Emily would be proud to share this space. She always dreamed of someday getting the lead role in a play and being the star-- hopefully, we can help give her something other than the day of her accident as her spotlight so that it lasts forever. 

Note: If you would like to make a contribution in Emily or Aaron’s honour to contribute to this memorial park, please donate either through the Scotiabank account set-up in trust #30569 02042 85 or by email transfer at