‘Parts of it still don’t feel real’
Carbonear native reflects on Fort McMurray wildfire one year later
One year after a massive wildfire raged through Fort McMurray, Alta., Kristen Green is still coming to terms with what happened.
“It was surreal,” the Carbonear native told The Compass when asked to describe what it was like being in the thick of it. “I think that’s the best word to describe it. Parts of it still don’t feel real.”
Green, whose maiden name is Ryan, was out on her deck with a friend on May 1, 2016 when the fire started in the north end of Fort McMurray, not far from where she lived.
“We had to put our hands over our drinks because there was ash raining from the sky, but even then we never thought of evacuating or thought that it would get as bad as it did.”
Today, Green and her husband Kyle are staying in Edmonton while she attends to some health issues. The fire did indeed force the couple to evacuate, and their home was among the 2,400 buildings destroyed in the blaze. Work got underway earlier this year to rebuild their home.
“I have so many mixed emotions when it comes to Fort McMurray and the fire,” said Green, who received a transfer to the community with the RCMP in 2011. “It is a very difficult thing to deal with, the loss of our house, but I also wouldn’t wish this on anyone else. In a way I would rather it happen to us than other people we know. The loss also comes with frustration. Frustration that our house isn’t rebuilt yet.”
Green has a lot of love for Fort McMurray. In recent years, it’s become a town where people are settling down and bringing their families to stay there.
“I had family in Fort McMurray and made some amazing friends,” she said. “I had met so many people through work, roller derby, volunteering with my dog, and through dog training that I couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone I knew. You could see the change in people. They started caring about the city that they lived in.”
The wildfire put a hold on all of that. Due to the important role emergency responders had in that setting, Green and her husband remained in Fort McMurray from the day of the evacuation on May 3 through to May 6.
“The first day was the hardest because we weren’t together and we didn’t know where our family or friends were. But we had a job to do and I think it was more important for everyone in Fort McMurray to see us on the road helping them than for us to be with our families. That is our job.”
Losing the house
A call came in at 4:30 a.m. on May 5 from the alarm company serving their home. Kristen and Kyle were seated at a table with co-workers. They didn’t answer the call, assuming the news was not good. And, there was still work to do.
Once they evacuated, Kristen and Kyle managed to stay at the home of a retired RCMP member who lived just outside Edmonton and remained there for a month before returning to work in June. They stayed with a co-worker in Fort McMurray for that month before finding a small apartment that could also accommodate their dogs.
“When we returned for work it was almost harder for me to go into one of the neighbourhoods that I had been evacuating rather than seeing my own neighbourhood,” Green said. “We walked a lot of the trails that we used to walk and to see the devastation was overwhelming. I still don’t think I’ve fully accepted the fact that we lost our house.
At this time, Kristen and Kyle were engaged and due to get married in October.
“We called our families after the evacuation and told them we weren’t sure how we were going to get married and thought we would just elope or have a small ceremony,” she said. “Our families said that the fire may have taken our house but it would not control our life. They helped us have an amazing wedding in St. John’s on Oct. 1. That day was about celebrating us and not about what we had lost.”
The oil economy in Alberta was already reeling when the wildfire happened last spring. The province’s economy is in the process of moving out of a recession, with growth expected in 2017. That will be the first case of growth in Alberta’s economy in two years.
Despite all that’s happened, Green’s is optimistic about the province’s future. Fort McMurray’s economic outlook is of great importance to Newfoundland and Labrador, with thousands travelling to Alberta for work while their families remain back home.
“I think Fort McMurray was becoming something great before the fire and I think if anything the fire has brought that community closer together,” Green said. “It will rebuild and it will be important for the economy in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta again.”
“When we returned for work it was almost harder for me to go into one of the neighbourhoods that I had been evacuating rather than seeing my own neighbourhood.” Kristen Green
The scene that greeted Kristen Green one month after last May’s wildfire in Fort McMurray.
Kristen Green, pictured kneeling on the right, with a few others picking up the pieces in Fort McMurray.
A plume of smoke rises in the air near a gas station in Fort McMurray.