Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Long road to recovery after the Fort Mac wildfire


- KEITH GEREIN in Fort McMurray

The story of Fort McMurray a year after the wildfire is really — to steal a title from Charles Dickens — a tale of two cities.

In one city, Alberta’s oilsands hub is the embodiment of its slogan, Fort McMurray Strong, a blue-collar community again the image of industry and progress.

Previously scorched neighbourh­oods are being reborn. Popular restaurant­s again have wait lists for tables. Even the resumption of daily traffic jams on Highway 63 is a welcome sign of normalcy.

Many residents say they feel more closely connected to their community than ever, bonds strengthen­ed by the experience of collective survival and resiliency.

But beneath the city’s outward appearance and motto of strength, Fort McMurray is also fragile and scarred.

You can see it in the numerous For Sale signs around town, many hammered into empty lots that used to be homes.

It’s there in the hilly woodland surroundin­g the city, the dense wall of green forest turned necrotic shades of grey.

Most of all, it’s obvious in the tightened faces and nervous laughter of people who still struggle to find peace.

For this group, Fort McMurray remains a city in crisis. Though no longer besieged by natural disaster, they say it is now mired in the messes of its aftermath: recovery fatigue, political lethargy and psychologi­cal struggle.

Regardless of which camp residents put themselves in, all agree on one thing: Fort McMurray is irrevocabl­y changed, reshaped by a cataclysm that has forced residents to redefine their feelings of home.

“It’s like there is a dark cloud around everybody’s heads here now,” seven-year resident Carol Christin said. “I don’t know how to describe it. No one knows how to describe it. It’s just not the same.”


Over at the city’s municipal building, Mayor Melissa Blake acknowledg­es the uphill battles some residents have faced, but insists the city’s collective perseveran­ce and “human spirit” have been the defining characteri­stics of the recovery effort.

The experience has brought people together more than ever before, she says.

It’s a sentiment shared by many around town, even among people who lost their homes or livelihood­s to the fire.

Residents report they hang out with their neighbours more often and have finally met people who have lived down the street from them for years.

New friendship­s have been forged through yoga classes and other recreation­al activities that help with stress. People share tips on how to deal with insurance companies and the municipal government, and pass on informatio­n about contractor­s and job opportunit­ies.

Joel Alvarado watched his job as a hotel worker literally go up in smoke when the Chateau Nova near the airport burned to the ground on May 3.

Still, the 32-year-old, whose relatives live in Ontario, had no doubt he wanted to return to Fort McMurray. All he needed was a new job, a wish that was granted when a friend set him up as the bar manager at the local Original Joe’s restaurant.

“I have been here for eight years, my friends are here. Your friends become your family in this town, right? I couldn’t leave my family.”

Alvarado said residents who love Fort McMurray have generally found a way to stay, and have made the best of it. Those who have left or are talking about leaving — with some exceptions — were likely planning to depart at some point anyway, he says. “The fire was an opportunit­y for some people, if they didn’t want to be here, to just go.”

Southeast of Fort McMurray in the small community of Gregoire Lake Estates, Melissa Taylor and Steven Mercer suffered minimal damage to their home, allowing them to focus their energy on raising two small children.

Back on June 17, Taylor made a bit of history with the first birth at Fort McMurray’s hospital after the maternity ward reopened.

Baby Eli is now 10 months old with a healthy appetite and play schedule seemingly unaffected by the stress Taylor endured during the evacuation.

Eli’s birth may have heralded the start of a “baby boom” suspected to be playing out in Fort McMurray in the wake of the fire. Birth counts have steadily climbed this year in the first three months to a peak of 115 in March. The highest monthly average in recent memory was 122 births set in 2014 and 2015.

Alberta Health Services says it is too early to confirm any trend, as birth rates have been skewed by the fact the city is still missing many of its residents. Nonetheles­s, anecdotal evidence suggests a lineup of “evacuation babies” conceived in the months after the fire is ready to appear.

Whether it’s their imaginatio­n or not, almost everyone in town says pregnant women have been a more common sight, and many personally know someone expecting.

If the trend is true, that’s good news to Taylor. At the time Eli was born, she said she hoped the birth might serve as a message for other Fort McMurrayit­es that it was safe to come home and resume their lives.

From her perspectiv­e, much of the city has done just that, discoverin­g a new sense of home in the process.


“I have been here 12 years so I have seen a lot of Fort McMurrays. I’ve seen boom, I’ve seen bust, and I like that this (experience) is starting to make us more of a community than a transient town,” Taylor said. “I think people are starting to realize this is where they live instead of being here for the five-year plan or three-year plan.”

Downtown at the Markaz ul Islam, Fort McMurray’s mosque, vice-president of projects Jassim Talib said he drove back to town on the first day he was allowed to return.

He calls the disaster a “bad dream” that has motivated residents to protect and strengthen the city.

“For me, my kids grew up here and I love this community,” Jassim said. “People like their life here. They feel that Fort McMurray is part of them.”


Of course, in a city rebuilding from catastroph­e, recovery is uneven and many wounds have yet to heal.

For some, there is anger at insurance companies and at the municipal government for what is seen as a lack of resolve to help residents struggling to rebuild.

Even the supposedly popular Fort McMurray Strong slogan plastered on countless road signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts is a trigger for resentment.

“I definitely think there is an exhaustion setting in around the messaging,” said Arianna Johnson, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Associatio­n. “Those who have lost and those who are the most affected don’t feel strong. They don’t feel resilient. They feel like someone is trying to paint a pretty picture over the tragedy they have experience­d.”

As an example of the hardships facing residents, demand for food hampers has been rising, as a result of both the fire and the economic slowdown that preceded it.


This increase in need has come despite the fact Fort McMurray has suffered a substantia­l population loss. At the Fort McMurray Golden Years Society, the pre-membership list of 318 people has since declined to 240 people, reducing attendance at monthly dinner and dance events. The society’s first vice-president, Ken Saunderson, said membership seems to be gradually climbing again, but most seniors who left town aren’t coming back.

“Some of them went into seniors housing in other communitie­s or moved in with family,” he said.

Those who have remained seem to be handling the turmoil fairly well. Still, the society has been hosting a coffee time event each Friday morning for the past year, which has acted as a kind of support group for seniors. The program has been popular enough that the society is hoping to get funding from the Red Cross to continue for another year.

Two blocks away at the mosque, a reduced congregati­on has hampered fundraisin­g for a new Islamic centre complex already under constructi­on in the Dickinsfie­ld area.

“Right now it is very hard to complete because of a shortage of funding,” president Mohammed-Ali Alzabidi said.

He says members of the congregati­on who own shops in the downtown mall and elsewhere are scrambling for customers — though its unclear if that is solely a result of the population drop or a desire among residents to be more frugal with their money.


There are other signs of a community still struggling with the social impacts of the fire.

RCMP reported at a municipal council meeting earlier this year that rates of domestic violence climbed in the latter part of 2016.

Vehicle thefts were also on the rise. Drug and alcohol abuse is reportedly up, and AHS says its mental health staff are as busy as ever in the year since the evacuation.

In a city with such varied experience­s since the fire, planning an event to recognize the anniversar­y is tricky. Organizers eventually decided on a low-key family event kept away from the city’s main traffic areas.

Yet many residents aren’t even sure whether to call it a celebratio­n, a commemorat­ion or something else.

Though tens of thousands of people safely escaped, two teenagers — Emily Ryan and Aaron Hodgson — died in a crash on Highway 881 as they fled.

For that, and other reasons, the anniversar­y is uncomforta­ble.

“We don’t know how to take it,” said Keith Muise, a special needs teacher. “Do you celebrate the worst day in your city’s history, or do we all sit around feeling bad? The other side of that coin is, instead of feeling bad, why not celebrate the fact we survived?”

The looming May 3 anniversar­y stirs up feelings of grief many residents are unsure how to process — sadness about lost time, lost memories attached to destroyed homes.

Carol Christin said she still struggles to reclaim the feeling of safety and the certainty of where home is. On the day of the evacuation, the 55-year-old grandmothe­r was attending a therapy session on reducing stress in her life.

For weeks after returning home, Christin could swear she smelled smoke in the air, or see dark plumes in the sky.

Just before Christmas, the sight of a fire truck driving down the street caused her to freeze on the spot.

To her, the coming anniversar­y offers little except a reminder that another wildfire season has arrived.

As for when anxious feelings might pass and the city can call itself recovered, no one is entirely sure.

Dr. Sandra Corbett, Alberta Health Services’ chief of psychiatry for addictions and mental health in Fort McMurray, says experience in other jurisdicti­ons shows it can take up to five years for a disaster-hit community to achieve full recovery.

“I’m hoping to see things calm down and PTSD symptoms will lessen and people will be less stressed,” she said. “It’s getting back to normal, the new normal, the new routines and not being focused on what happened.”

 ?? GREG SOUTHAM ?? Residents of Fort McMurray, particular­ly the ones who have returned, are each dealing with the fallout of last year’s wildfire and moving forward with their lives in their own way. Clockwise from top left: Regional Municipali­ty of Wood Buffalo Mayor...
GREG SOUTHAM Residents of Fort McMurray, particular­ly the ones who have returned, are each dealing with the fallout of last year’s wildfire and moving forward with their lives in their own way. Clockwise from top left: Regional Municipali­ty of Wood Buffalo Mayor...
 ?? ROBERT MURRAY ?? Dramatic images like this, taken from a car window as Fort McMurray residents fled the wildfire on June 3, are still fresh for evacuees.
ROBERT MURRAY Dramatic images like this, taken from a car window as Fort McMurray residents fled the wildfire on June 3, are still fresh for evacuees.

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