When the first wave of residents started returning to Fort McMurray on June 1, I was one of nearly a dozen reporters and photographers to return to the city with them. Over three days, we captured vignettes and short stories, telling the experiences of the people in their own words. I've selected mine, but you can read the full stories at the Edmonton Journal: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
As traffic streams north on Highway 63, returning residents are warned that their community will not be exactly as they left it.
As far as Boyle, 286 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, the municipality had placed dozens of electronic signs on Highway 63, advising people improvisation and self-sufficiency would be the new normal once they arrived home.
The messages included “Bring 14 days of food water medication”, “Mental health is important”, and “Water, use it wisely”.
The warnings were enough to make Andrew Martell, 26, nervous as he filled three cans of gasoline at a Shell station outside Grassland.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.
Before the fire, his company was having trouble finding work. But with dozens of contracts lined up to pulverize gravel, he’s expecting to be busier than he’s been all year. After spending a month with friends in Wandering River, he is anxious to start working again.
“It was slow all last year. It wasn’t that great for us,” he said.
“I’m just excited to get back to doing some work.”
Martell had already been inside Fort McMurray as a heavy equipment operator with Stonyvalley Contracting. He had yet to visit his own home, although he expected some smoke damage. What startled him was not the destruction when he drove through, but the green.
Parts of the boreal forest lining Highway 63 that had been burned were already blooming. Heavy rains had turned the brown, dry grass that covered Fort McMurray earlier this year into a thick, lush cover.
“I was not expecting nature to come back so quickly. That’s going to be good for people,” he said. “It’s just sad the neighbourhoods that got burned themselves are in such rough shape.”
When Russell Boston, 32, arrived at his Alberta Drive home, he found the municipality had left a re-entry guide at his doorstep.
But it’s a bible and a self-help book that are bringing him the most comfort.
An evangelical Christian, Boston has spent much of his first morning back in Fort McMurray reading a booklet titled “What happens when your world changes.”
It’s published by the American evangelist preacher Billy Graham and has brought some comfort, but has left him with more questions than answers.
The obvious question, “How can God let things like this happen,” has never left his mind. His family has accepted the best answer is to accept they will likely never know.
“We don’t know why these things happen, but we have comfort knowing God will help Fort McMurray rebuild,” he says.
For now, his wife and two-year-old daughter will remain at a dormitory at the University of Alberta.
Boston will spend the week cleaning the house and throwing out rotten food. He hopes to start working again as a bank specialist with ATB Financial.
But until his family joins him later this month, Boston’s mind will be racing with theological questions he knows will never be answered.
At the same time, how can God be implicated when these immensely complicated human systems prove fragile?
After all, humanity, with all its faults, is no less God’s creation than the law that fire consumes dry material, whether they be trees or homes.
“What happens to the friends we still don’t see here? There are people all over the country we may never see again,” he said.
“There are so many uncertainties, but I believe these booms will uplift my family’s spirits. I believe God won’t leave us.”
For nearly three weeks, Fort McMurray’s medical care has been available out of tents, staffed by a skeleton crew of doctors, nurses and technicians. Frequently buzzed by low-flying helicopters, Dr. Qaiser Rizvi jokes “it has a complete MASH vibe.”
The makeshift hospital, of course, is more sophisticated than that. Sprawled across 4,750-square-feet in the parking lot of the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre, the tents hold a trauma room, X-ray lab and a resuscitation bay. A CT scanner unit is in a trailer. Eight stretchers plus a pair of observation beds can handle up to 35 visits per day.
There are two doctors, seven nurses, a respiratory technician, lab technician and a crew of administrators, managers, supervisors and paramedics. Planes and ambulances are on standby to bring serious patients to Edmonton.
“The medications are stocked, the equipment and staff are ready to handle what comes next,” says Rizvi. “It’s different working like this, but we’ve got everything we need for essentials, minus a few bells and whistles.”
Rizvi arrived at the Urgent Care Centre, as the tent hospital is officially known as, on Sunday, three days before the city opened for the general public. By noon, he had treated patients concerned about their medications, suffering from chest pains and a kidney stone.
“Just the typical walk-in clinic stuff,” he says.
While he is confident in the ability to treat basic care, the thought of a serious medical emergency has the staff worried. The plan is to keep the impromptu hospital open until the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre reopens, with most services expected to be ready around June 21. Alberta Health Services is still waiting to hear from other local doctors when they plan to return.
“There will be some challenges working in this environment, but we’ve been preparing for this,” he says. “It’s nice seeing the town start picking up today. But a lot of things can happen.”
I was brought back to Fort McMurray on May 7 for work and lived at a bunch of camps north of the city. We had Internet and TV, so I knew how bad the city was.
It was something else to come home this morning for the first time and see my home standing and so many homes around me gone. I’ve got some heat damage. The other homes have soot and smoke damage. Some of the panelling is really warped.
My entire house just stinks. I had one freezer full of seafood and another freezer full of beef, chicken and other meat. I have to get rid of two fridges. There’s no way I’m opening them. One is leaking something purple and I’m scared to open them anyways.
I had two friends who knew they lost their homes in Beacon Hill and were doing fine. Then when they had a chance to see they had nothing else, they lost it. Two grown men, crying on the side of the road.
I’ve had the time to think what I would do. I lost my daughter four years ago in a car accident. She was 18 and hadn’t even graduated high school. We’ve lost a lot of immaterial stuff. We lived, we survived, we’re going to help each other. We have to get on with our lives.
I think most people here will come here. This is a nice neighbourhood. We’ll clear the ash and garbage and burnt stuff. We’ll be a community again. We have to. I’ve seen a lot in my life. You just gotta move on.
I was in Newfoundland visiting family when the fire happened. For weeks, I assumed I was homeless. I heard how bad the fire was in this area and the trailers were gone.
I have no idea how my home is still here. The whole street down to my right is gone. Then two homes next to me standing, then more homes gone. Maybe it was the spray from the hoses and the retardant, but there’s no sign of that kind of damage here.
Actually the whole inside is fine. I don’t have any smoke smells. The fish survived for a month with no food. I opened the fridge, all I have to do is throw out the eggs. The time on the microwave and stove is the exact same time that I have on my watch. I never lost power.
There is some melting on the panels facing the forest, but it’s so small. I expected that, but I don’t understand how those melted.
When I saw the satellite image of my home for the first time a few weeks ago, I expected to see it all wiped out. I couldn’t believe to see it made it. I still can’t believe it. My biggest chore outside of fixing the siding is cleaning off my truck. There’s a lot of ash and chemicals the firefighters sprayed
on here, but I’m using my neighbour’s power washer to get the job done.
I guess I’ve been luckier than most, but I don’t understand any of this. Maybe the wind had something to do with it. I was born Roman Catholic. I’m not the most religious person, but my wife died of cancer last year. It really tested my faith. She didn’t deserve that. But maybe she was looking out for me and our home.
I remember a time when people were hunting moose in this very spot. That’s one of the things I love about Fort McMurray.
I was the third person in line to get back into the city on Wednesday, but I was the first one down the hill. I showed up to the roadblock at 3:45 a.m. and I was ready to camp there overnight. The officer told me to hang around because they were actually going to open early in 20 minutes.
I was waving to the firefighters and honking my horn; it was like a parade. I had tears coming home. I live in Dickinsfield. I know they said that part of the city wouldn’t be open, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to come home.
This last month was just terrible. There are a couple of firefighters I know who used to be kids I coached when they played hockey. My son is a sheriff, which I think is funny because he doesn’t ride horses. But they were giving me updates all last month.
When we were leaving, my son called and told me not to go south. He told me it was pure chaos and Beacon Hill was completely gone. I thought my son was exaggerating. Then it took me two hours to get to the highway and my son called to tell me to go south because everywhere north was full.
I had four properties in Beacon Hill and three of them are destroyed. I had to call one client who actually sold me my first house. I had to tell him his house in Dickinsfield was gone. He’s a good friend. He was in a wheelchair. He was completely hysterical. It’s breaking my heart thinking about it.
I guess professionally I’m going to be busy for the first time in a while, but the reason behind that has completely ripped my heart out. What’s worse is I know rent and housing prices are going to go back up. It’s supply and demand.
I got here last night to beat the traffic. It was eerie seeing everything so empty. It’s becoming normal now. I’m seeing some neighbours come back. I’ve met up with some friends.
I have two girls, they’re seven and five. I’m going back to Edmonton to be with them. I just came back to clean up the house, grab some things, take care of insurance and all that other fun stuff.
The fridge is gross and there’s a bit of a smoke smell in the basement, but I’m overall happy. It’s not bad here.
My girls are doing really well. I don’t see any signs of trauma or depression on them. They’re not acting out or sad. I have them in school to get something normal in their lives and hang out with other kids. It’s good they’re having a routine.
I haven’t seen the destroyed homes, yet. I’ve been avoiding it but I know I’ll see them eventually. I don’t know what would be happening with me if me and the girls lost the house.
We’re going to see if we can come back in a month or so. It’s still not safe for them. The town should be normal before that.
I’ve been too busy to think about what the town is going to look like afterwards or about rebuilding. Even now, I can tell there’s going to be some changes. The forest used to come right up to the houses because of the trail system, now there’s a huge space. I don’t think you’re going to have any homes right against the trails anymore.
I drove past the house once when we were fighting the fire on McKinlay Crescent, but today is the first time I have actually been inside.
My roof has some retardant on it, but there’s no smell. I’m lucky the retardant matches my roof shingles so it’s not noticeable. I’m not concerned. We were covered in the stuff regularly.
The fire ripped through here so fast. I remember thinking my home was gone, because I’m so close to the trailers. I had my doubts we would even have a neighbourhood, but I kept those doubts to myself and focused on the job.
I wasn’t actually supposed to be here. We were going to Abasand, but were told to go here instead. Abasand and Beacon Hill was a complete loss, so this was our focus.
It was the wind that determined how destructive the fire would be.
It could have been so much worse. A lot of the city was saved by dumb luck.
If the fire got into the Birchwood Trail system, I can’t imagine the loss. We would have been stretched too thin fighting it, and it would have taken out the interior of Timberlea and Thickwood. It’s terrifying to imagine the fire actually in the middle of the city.
I have a whole new outlook. I’m seeing neighours pull up, but I know of two who are leaving for sure with jobs lined up.
Canada Day should be interesting, but I don’t know if they’ll skip the fireworks this year.