Scavenged from the ashes: Fort McMurray carpenter creates wildfire-charred furniture

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Scavenged from the ashes: Fort McMurray carpenter creates wildfire-charred furniture

Beaming wide through a thick layer of ash, Joe Little emerges from the blackened boreal forest that skirts Fort McMurray, a load of charred lumber in tow.

The Fort McMurray carpenter is using trees burned in last May's wildfire to create hand-crafted furniture and keepsakes for those who survived the disaster.

'We don't take nothing that's living'

"We don't take nothing that's living. We take dead trees that have been burned," Little said Monday from the doorway of his workshop.

"But we've built everything from dog dishes to mirrors … anything you can imagine, we've built it."

A year after the massive blaze terrorized the city, the woodland surrounding Fort McMurray remains virtually unrecognizable. More than half a million hectares of forest was scorched in the disaster. Some trees were reduced to ash. Those that remain standing are ashen skeletons, robbed of their branches and foliage.

Seeing some of his favourite stomping grounds destroyed was heartbreaking for Little and his two young children.

"We had an area where we went picnicking every Saturday on the bikes and it was a circle of big, beautiful spruce trees and if you see it now, it would depress you. They're gone," Little said.

"I'm 50 years old and I've never seen a forest fire do that. The trees are literally gone. The place isn't even there now.  You can't find it."

'She's a beast'

Little's deer-antler adorned garage in the north-end neighbourhood of Timberlea is a mess of seared lumber, bloated burls, and a growling chainsaw he jokingly refers to his as "his girlfriend."

In a corner there's a tangle of broken sanders and table saws — brand-new tools broken down in a matter of days by the unyielding boreal wood.

"She's a beast," Little said of his favourite chainsaw, before placing the machine in the wood miller and pulling the choke cord. "It cuts through a tree like you would not believe. You can't even believe it unless you see it, it's incredible what it will do.

"But you couldn't use it logging, you'd have to be a 400-pound weightlifter who did good exercises every day. That's how rugged it is."

It takes hours to process a single piece.

'You can't even believe how dirty you get'

Before he can carefully scrape off the charred bark to reveal the marbled black lumber and begin hours of heavy sanding, Little must fell each tree. He then mills each board — one at a time, the old-fashioned way — and hauls them out of the bush in a small cart.

It's a dirty job that tests his patience, but the former logger and avid woodsman does his best to relish the work.

"You can't even believe how dirty you get. The kids are filthy. You have to wash everybody's clothes when you get home, and I mean black, filthy black.

"But big deal, one of our traditions is we always bring a can of oysters and chopped cheese and that's the first thing they always ask for when we head to the woods is, 'Dad, we can we open the oysters?' " 

A mechanic by trade, Little said working on the burned wood has proved a financial lifeline for his family. Work was hard to come by this winter, but the new business has got the family by, he said.

And he's found passion and reward in the craft.

'There is a connection'

People from across the country have commissioned Little's work, most of them survivors of the wildfire who are looking for a memento of the disaster.

Little understands the desire to remember things lost. He rummages three, long rusted pegs out of his toolbox. He scavenged the old square nails from his childhood church in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, years after the church burned to the ground.

He's carried them with him for decades.

"I understand," he said. "I went back and retrieved these out of the ashes, so there is a connection to wanting to remember things. You can see — I knew right where they were and they come with me everywhere," he said.

"People are very emotional when you build things for them, so it's been therapeutic for me.

"As bad as I hate working with wood, there is something to be said for going out and taking something that was destroyed, working with it, and turning it something."