Fort McMurray has mixed emotions one year after wildfire disaster

Jonathan Rumley
A park bench sits burnt in a park in the Timberlea neighbourhood of Fort McMurray in June 2016. The charred wood is a familiar sight in the community as many trees were torched by the flames. Photo from CP.

It’s a day they’d rather not remember, but one they won’t forget.

On May 3, 2016, northern Alberta was ravaged by a massive wildfire that left a trail of destruction. Thousands were forced to flee Fort McMurray under a mandatory evacuation. Many left not knowing it would be the last time they’d ever see their homes.

The community falls under the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo where Colleen Tatum serves as a councillor for Ward 1. She told Yahoo Canada News the anniversary will be sombre day of reflection as residents have mixed feelings.

“It was about 10 per cent of the population that lost their home and probably another 10 per cent that returned to severely damaged home situations,” Tatum said. “It’s hard to get past it.”

Jane Stroud, a Ward 4 municipal councillor, admitted it will be a difficult day despite all of the “significant progress” made in the past year.

“There will be some emotional upheaval within in the day,” Stroud told Yahoo Canada News. “Some youth are still struggling with the aftermath of the fire.”

The Globe and Mail reported data collected from the Workers’ Compensation Board revealed claims for “psychological injuries” doubled in the Wood Buffalo region in May 2016 compared to the same month a year earlier.

“Even right now, there’s a lot of people realizing it’s a year later and I’m still looking up at the sky and feeling a quiver in my stomach, maybe I need to speak to somebody, and maybe they haven’t yet,” Tatum said. “You should go get help. You should go talk to somebody,” the councillor added. “There’s resources out there.”

Stroud acknowledged that in particular, the Canadian Red Cross has been “very involved” in the community.

With more than 66,000 residents, the community known as Fort Mac is receiving assistance from multiple organizations, including the Canadian Red Cross. “People are encouraged to go to these groups and organizations to chat with them and try to work through this situation,” Stroud said.

The Canadian Red Cross noted in a news release that it has collected $323 million to assist the affected area, spending and committing 75 per cent of the total funds to date.

“Nearly 65,000 families registered to receive support from the Red Cross,” the agency revealed. “More than 126,400 electronic fund transfers provided direct financial assistance to help residents pay for things like rent, mortgage, utilities, household goods, food, gas and clothing.”

And there’s help for local shops, too. Stroud said 692 small businesses got financial support ranging from $5,683 to $7,916 and there’s another phase of funding in the works.

“There is a struggle,” Stroud admitted. “We’ve really tried to help.”

Hundreds attempting to rebuild

Another challenge for the community is rebuilding the houses damaged or destroyed by the wildfire. Tatum said local perspectives vary depending on where people stand in their rebuilding journey. Some residents have seen their homes rebuilt while others are still trying to sort things out with their insurance company.

But there’s still signs of progress. Stroud confirmed 645 building permits have been approved for rebuilds while 424 foundations have been laid. Tatum added permits were being turned around “quickly and adequately,” and yet, hundreds are still out of their homes.

“This fire affected 10 per cent of the community. The other 90 per cent, they’re helping and encouraging their neighbours,” Stroud told Yahoo Canada News. “We’re resilient enough to work through this situation and I believe we are doing our best to help those less fortunate.”

There have been roughly 2,600 applications for building permits, but even for the ones that have received approval, there’s only so many trades people in northern Alberta to do these jobs.

“That really dictates how fast you can move forward,” Tatum said.

And there are lessons to be learned from the natural disaster. The community hopes to increase communication between different response groups across administrative levels to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

“We were mainly reactive,” Stroud admitted. “It’s just the way it was.”

But despite all the obstacles, the community is moving forward. After all, Fort Mac is “inherently a community of boot-strapping people” that rallies together during tough times, according to Tatum. “We’re a northern community so we’re used to having to rely on ourselves, we’re used to taking care of our neighbours to survive.”

Residents say they are incredibly thankful to the rest of Canada for the help and support they have received since the out-of-control blaze.

“They were very kind gestures and they gave a financial boost to our residents and our business, which continue to help them through this challenging year,” Stroud told Yahoo Canada News.

“We can never say thank you enough to the response of the country,” Tatum said. “The vastness of that response was an amazing thing to be a recipient of,” she added. “The outpouring of love is something I’ll never forget.”