Back on the air, but not back home

Ra­dio work deemed es­sen­tial ser­vice

SundayXtra - - FORT MCMURRAY WILDFIRE - By Lau­ren Krugel

FORT McMURRAY, Alta. — From the street-front win­dow of rock sta­tion 100.5 Cruz FM in down­town Fort McMurray, pro­gram direc­tor An­drew Wilcox can see the forested hill where his home still stands in the fire-scarred Abasand neigh­bour­hood.

Un­der the orig­i­nal gov­ern­ment reen­try plan, Wilcox would have been able to re­turn Satur­day to the house he shares with two room­mates.

But the area sus­tained ma­jor dam­age when the vo­ra­cious wildfire swept through parts of the city a month ago.

Toxic ash has ren­dered the homes of up to 2,000 peo­ple in the neigh­bour­hoods of Abasand, Bea­con Hill and Water­ways un­in­hab­it­able, even though they’re still struc­turally sound.

“Lit­er­ally where I sit right now, my home is ba­si­cally a straight line up a hill, and there’s a part of me that would love noth­ing more than to run up that hill and head to my house,” said Wilcox, who has been stay­ing with a co-worker since he got back into Fort McMurray.

He said it’s nat­u­ral to feel an­gry and frus­trated, but he un­der­stands au­thor­i­ties are try­ing to keep ev­ery­one safe.

Wilcox was al­lowed back into Fort McMurray a week ago, four days be­fore the of­fi­cial staged re-en­try be­gan, as the ra­dio sta­tion was deemed an es­sen­tial ser­vice.

On May 3, the day ev­ery­one had to flee, the sta­tion man­aged to stay on air un­til about 5:15 p.m., when backup gen­er­a­tors for its trans­mit­ters cut off. Staff had left by then.

Wilcox wanted to get back to work af­ter pack­ing up some of his things in Abasand, but by then the en­tire city was be­ing evac­u­ated.

“I tried — be­lieve me. It was the most frus­trat­ing feel­ing I’ve ever had in my life, not be­ing able to be here at that mo­ment,” he said.

“It is our job and our pas­sion to in­form peo­ple and talk to peo­ple over the ra­dio. No­body wanted to go. We all planned to be here all night long, and we had to leave about 4 o’clock, and it was the weird­est thing to drive away from town and lis­ten to the sta­tion un­til it had ba­si­cally stopped.”

The sta­tion was off the air com­pletely for about 2½ days. Af­ter that, it came back in phases, stream­ing on­line from its sis­ter sta­tion in Ed­mon­ton ini­tially.

The fire came per­ilously close to its trans­mit­ter near the air­port but caused no harm to it in the end. So it was able to get back up and run­ning more quickly than first feared.

The sta­tion is now run­ning with about half the staff it nor­mally has.

Next Wed­nes­day, Wilcox will be among those al­lowed back into their places briefly grab some be­long­ings. When he’ll be able to re­turn for good is an open ques­tion.

He man­aged to snag a lot of sen­ti­men­tal items when he fled the city, but there are still some he’s ea­ger to re­trieve.

“In my house right now is an old ra­dio that my mother lis­tened to at her house when she was a kid. I care a lot about that. My cof­fee ta­ble is my grand­fa­ther’s desk. It’s over 120 years old. That mat­ters a lot to me.

They don’t have huge dol­lar val­ues on them, but they have a lot of sen­ti­men­tal value.”

JASON FRANSON / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Ra­dio pro­gram direc­tor An­drew Wilcox’s house is in­tact, but toxic ash is a threat.

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