Fort McMurray fire anniversary comes as some still struggling to rebuild

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Fort McMurray fire anniversary comes as some still struggling to rebuild

Before the charred debris and ash was trucked away from Mike Ryan's Saprae Creek home, his family and a few friends desperately picked through the rubble. The family was searching for anything that survived the flames and could connect them to the home they had lived in for 10 years.

All they found was a single coffee mug.

On it are pictures of two dog bones. "Life is ruff," it reads.

His acreage, 25 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, was once surrounded by dense forest — now it borders blackened spindly trees.

A melted car still sits on his property and frayed wires poke out of the ground. A sign near the driveway warns that the area is a construction zone — but there is no work going on.

"You never think that it is going to be the 12-month anniversary and you still don't have a clear answer as to where you are going," Ryan says.

Slow progress for some

Of the nearly 1,600 buildings that were destroyed in the forest fire that tore through the northern Alberta community, so far development permits have been issued to rebuild just 645 of them. 

At least some of the delays have been in the Fort McMurray neighbourhood of Waterways, where some residents wondered if they'd ever be allowed to rebuild because the area sits on a floodplain.

Last fall, the municipality agreed to move forward with mitigation measures which cleared the way for some construction — but it also advised a few dozen homeowners against rebuilding because of concerns that their properties were located on sloping ground that is no longer stable.

"When you get up every day and you can't figure out what your future is, you don't know if you want to live here or move on."

When the fire swept into the area last May, more than 80,000 people evacuated, and includes those who were living and working at oilsands camps outside of the city. Officials with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo estimate that around 5,000 Fort McMurray residents have not returned since the fire, but it is difficult to get an exact figure. The city's population has always fluctuated with the booms and busts of the resource economy and before the fire hit, the region was already struggling through a downturn.

Now that downturn is expected to be eased, at least somewhat, by a post-fire construction boom. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that over the next three years, $5.3 billion will invested in rebuilding.

Along with that money comes new employment.

Construction boom 

Trevor Rowsell was laid off from his job in the oilpatch one year before the fire swept through the city. He's now working full-time with his JLA Construction helping to rebuild homes, including his own and his next door neighbour's.

"The communities are starting to look like communities again, and not just wastelands," he says.

Rowsell's house is located in Stonecreek, a newer subdivision in the northwest corner of the city. It was one of the last areas in Fort McMurray to burn, but it is one of the furthest along in terms of rebuilding, as construction crews began pouring foundations in the late fall and worked through the winter.

A few families have already moved in, and Rowsell plans to move his wife and his young son into their brand-new home in time for the one-year anniversary of the fire.

"Once it is completely finished and we take the first step in and we spend the first night, it is going to be very emotional," he says.

At the moment, he is forbidden from stepping inside the new build because his father-in-law, whom he works for, is putting on the final touches.

Standing outside and looking up at his soon-to-be home, he reflects on how fortunate he feels. A few days earlier while driving in Beacon Hill, a neighbourhood where 447 homes were lost, he came across a woman in tears, standing at the curb of her still vacant property.

"It is really hard to see the anguish on some people's faces," he says.

"I wish I could build every house here in Fort McMurray … and have everybody home and their family back together, but I am not a miracle worker."

Some are not choosing to rebuild at all. For-sale signs stick out from several muddy lots, and one will soon be staked in the ground where Anthony Hoffman grew up.

As a firefighter, he was thrown into the back of a pickup truck on the afternoon of May 3, 2016, and driven to the municipal hospital to try and protect it from the advancing flames. After it was saved, he went from house fire to house fire.

One evening, when he finally had some down time, he drove up to the property in Beacon Hill to see the destruction firsthand.

"It wasn't as emotional as I thought it was going to be," he says.

"That came later."

Reflecting on the fire

Hoffman had been living in his parents' home in Beacon Hill while it was under renovation. The plan was to upgrade the house and put it on the market, but after the fire the family decided not to rebuild. It will just be the lot going up for sale. Hoffman's other property, a condo he owned and had rented out, also burned down.

But the firefighter doesn't like to dwell on talk of loss.

Instead, he prefers to focus on how the fire has given him a deep understanding of what it's like to be in need. He points to the initial chaotic days of the fire, when after losing everything, he had to ask guys around the  fire department for a clean pair of underwear.

"It carves humility in a way that is uncomfortable, to kind of have to ask for help."

In the aftermath of the fire, more than $300 million was directed to the Red Cross through public donations and matching government funds. It was the agency's largest domestic appeal ever, and Hoffman says since the city was such a huge recipient of charity, it will be well-positioned to give back in the future.

"I think that means that the people from Fort McMurray can now do a tremendous good, because they know what it is like, and when you know what it is like you are pretty inclined to help."

Right now he acknowledges that there are still a lot of people hurting in this city.

With the months wearing on and with residents in such varying circumstances, any discussion around the  anniversary of the fire can ignite a raw emotional response.

"It's tough to talk about it," he says.

"We are picking open a wound that is finally starting to heal."