When Eric Crichton is not looking for jobs, he spends much of his free time replaying the last words he said to his girlfriend when they left their Abasand home on May 3: “Don’t worry. We have to go right now, but we’ll be back.”
Hours later, nothing remained but ash. These days, home is the driveway of a friend's house in Timberlea. The 29-year-old stays in an old camper with a flat tire he bought for $1,000 in Okotoks. Crichton's girlfriend is with her parents in Halifax, and he’s debating joining her.
“Weeks bouncing from one place to the next and what do I have to show? Still no job, still living like a hobo,” he says. “It’s hitting me and my girlfriend. Our old lives went up in smoke and we only have this to look forward to until we find a place. I won’t do this in the winter.”
In parking lots and driveways and city streets, possibly hundreds of people roam Fort McMurray in RVs and campers. Others have found shelter in campgrounds and trailer parks scattered across Wood Buffalo and the province.
The municipality expects the province to make an announcement regarding funding temporary accommodations before the end of the summer. Until then, everyone is wondering what to do before winter.
“Some of the other guys I’ve met in trailers, it’s all they talk about: either winter or council,” says Crichton. “It’s hard to plan for winter when council has you pissed off.”
Shortly after the city reopened, the municipality created a temporary campground west of the city at Abraham’s Land for those who cannot go home.
Before the fire, the land was planned to become home to a mosque, two churches and a subdivision. More than $1.6 million has been spent on water and sewage services, garbage and recycling, electricity and Internet access for park residents.
Piles of boxes from the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and Canadian Red Cross can be spotted outside some trailers.
It is the municipality’s recipe for a temporary, instant neighbourhood. No one is willing to call it a community, not even the municipality. The park is a temporary stop for displaced residents looking for longer term housing.
Once the site closes at the end of October, there are two other trailer parks the municipality says will remain open year-round.
“It is not very social here. Lots are still in shock, they’re still thinking about what happened. Or they’re disgruntled and angry,” says Susan McKay, who lives in a trailer with her husband, teenage son and dog. Her Beacon Hill home survived. “I have my moments, just waiting to know when I can go home.”
For those not calling the campground home, council approved amending land use bylaws allowing residents to live in trailers parked on their property. However, those parked in public areas across the city say they are usually left alone by police and bylaw enforcement.
Andrea Taylor, a social worker with Alberta Health Services, will sometimes visit the park, telling residents about mental health services and counselling. In recent weeks, she says demand has increased and many are receptive when told of the services available to them.
“They’re just doing what they gotta do,” says Taylor’s colleague, Samantha Gervais. “They’re relatively positive, but there is added stress for parents with kids going back to school.”
Nearby, Tracey Mackey, who shares a camper with her husband, daughter and dog, hopes the school year will bring some stability to her daughter, who is entering Grade 2. Her Dickinsfield home was spared the flames, but damaged when a nearby home exploded two weeks later.
“It’s cramped here. The dog doesn’t like it. And my daughter keeps asking when we can go home,” she says. “We’re looking at renting. We might park in our driveway. Right now, we’re just happy we have somewhere to stay for now.”
August 23, 2016/Fort McMurray Today