After spending nearly fifty years in Fort McMurray, Steve Yurkiw, 67, knows the city will soon be a thriving community once again. But with some of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods razed, he doubts it will be a Fort McMurray he recognizes.
“Fort McMurray will thrive again. But you can’t rebuild history and there’s lots of history gone now,” says the former mechanic who once worked in one of the city's garages.
“I’d like to stay, but I don’t know what it will be like. I had decades of memories, pictures, things saved in my home that are all gone," he says. "You can rebuild Beacon Hill but you can’t rebuild that.”
He’s not even sure it will be a city he can live in, both emotionally and financially. Before the fire, he worked part-time as a driver for other seniors. But he would need to continue working to replace other items - clothes, furniture, any repairs or renovations not covered by insurance, and hunting equipment worth thousands of dollars.
From his goddaughter’s cabin north of Lac La Biche, he’s thinking it might be easier to find a quiet corner of Alberta and retire. Fort McMurray was getting too big anyways.
“I don’t really do well in big cities.”
The wildfire surrounding Fort McMurray destroyed small parts of the newer Thickwood and Timberlea neighbourhoods. Yet, the areas most devastated happened to be the city’s historical ones, and home to much of the city’s seniors.
Waterways, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, lost 90 per cent of homes. The municipality’s 2015 census reports more people over the age of 60 lived there than any other neighbourhood. Beacon Hill and Abasand, two other neighbourhoods almost entirely razed by fire, also had a high seniors’ population.
“It finally hit us how much was lost, when my son said it hurt more to watch his grandmother's home burn than his own,” says Joan Furber, 63, president of the Golden Years Society.
“My whole life was in Waterways,” says Hugh, 63, her husband. “I’m fine, but I’m nervous to see the destruction. Right now, I feel it’ll probably hit me when I go home.”
The Furbers are not ready to give up on Fort McMurray and plan to go back. But with the homes of so many seniors gone, Joan fears seniors’ housing could be lost in the rebuilding process. The best solution, she says, is to build long-promised seniors’ housing at Willow Square at the same pace as the rest of the reconstruction process.
“My son is young. His house is gone, but he will recover,” she says. “How do you tell the elderly to do the same?”
Fort McMurray’s three seniors’ lodges - Rotary House, Araubasca House and Legion Manor - survived. For now, many of the city’s seniors are with family or scattered across the province in elderly care facilities.
The evacuation of the three lodges were successful, but challenging for those who are easily confused, require walkers and need medications.
But when eight new residents arrived at Eagle Hill Lodge in Willingdon, Alta. (123 kilometres northeast of Edmonton), their faces brightened when nursing staff and volunteers told them “your children and grandchildren are safe, and you’re with your friends from Fort McMurray.”
A routine is starting to set in for them after weeks of uncertainty. The lodge has exercise classes and regular picnics. On Sunday, a Mennonite choir sang for them. Everyone praises the staff and volunteers, but no one is prepared to call it their new home.
“This place is very comfortable. Nice town and nice people, but it is very small. There is no mobility,” says Hargal Bhagat, 81. “I am very happy here, but it is not Fort McMurray.”
May 18, 2016/Fort McMurray Today