Monday marks the five-year anniversary of one of the largest mass evacuations in Canadian history as the flames from what quickly became a catastrophic wildfire began to relentlessly wind their way through Fort McMurray, Alta.
In all, 88,000 people were forced to flee their homes, many in frightening fashion, as they were forced to drive near or even through flames as they made their way out of the northern Alberta community on the only road out of town.
BELOW: Highway 63 in 2016, where traffic moved slowly as tens of thousands of people were evacuated from Fort McMurray, and now.
The mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the political jurisdiction that Fort McMurray is situated in, acknowledges the impact the natural disaster continues to have on the community as he reflects on the fire.
“I meet young people all the time who still have bad dreams, who still think very vividly about what happened five years ago,” Don Scott says.
“There’s still a lot of lingering emotions about this, and we’re deeply mindful of that.”
In insured damages alone, the fire is estimated to have cost a staggering $3.8 billion as it engulfed about 10 per cent of the buildings in the community at the heart of the oilsands region.
While the fire forever changed the community, its resilience in the face of disaster — both in the form of the wildfire and from flooding — has created a path for much of that change to be positive. But some things in Fort McMurray remain a constant.
“We live in the middle of a boreal forest,” says regional fire chief Jody Butz. “The risk of wildfire is always there heading into the wildfire season, and it’s only up to Mother Nature to determine the level of risk that is.
“This year, there’s been no indication that it will be any worse than any other.
“We’re hopeful that the wildfire season that is upon us is going to be a quiet one like last year.”
While Butz is candid about the risks Fort McMurray’s surroundings pose to the community, he quickly adds that he and his fire department, the municipality and its inhabitants, and the provincial government are not simply crossing their fingers that disaster won’t strike again.
“To make a terrible situation into something positive — with the wildfire, with the floods — how do you turn that into something positive so that you don’t repeat history? I believe we’re making positive strides,” he says.
Butz says Wood Buffalo has come a long way in terms of progress on both wildfire prevention and mitigation since the 2016 fire, already having implemented the lion’s share of recommendations put forth in a report commissioned in the wake of the disaster.
While tangible improvements to both addressing wildfire risk and emergency preparedness have emerged from the ashes of the blaze that came to be known as “The Beast,” many in Fort McMurray say a more ethereal positive development has also materialized in the aftermath of the fire: a spirit of resilience has become even more firmly entrenched in the community.
Fort McMurray strong
In the days and weeks after Fort McMurray was evacuated half a decade ago, “Fort McMurray strong” and “Fort Mac strong” surfaced as a ubiquitous catchphrase among evacuees, the communities who took them in and among people across the country.
As the people of Fort McMurray tried to simultaneously navigate how to process the trauma of seeing their community devoured by flames and figure out where to take shelter and what to do next, a sense of camaraderie and a willingness to help one another became evident — as it would again later when the painstaking tasks of filing insurance claims and beginning to rebuild their community began.
While many Fort McMurray evacuees have expressed their gratitude for cities like Edmonton that took them in, donations from people across Canada and around the world and organizations like the Red Cross, a sense of resilience emerged from within as well.
“I think a lot of us who have been through the fire still have that Fort Mac strong attitude,” says Cora Dion, a longtime resident of Fort McMurray.
When the fire hit Fort McMurray in 2016, Dion followed her twin daughters in a truck while they fled the flames on the backs of their horses.
“It was always a pretty tight-knit community before, but after the fire, I found that it’s been even more so,” she says.
Dion points out that does not mean there aren’t difficult days.
“Our family has pulled through this relatively unscathed I think … (but still), probably 90 per cent of the city has a small heart attack every time we smell a forest fire.”
Since the fire, Dion has lost her business and her family lost everything in their basement because of the 2020 flood in Fort McMurray.
She says she is grateful to now have a job in the oilsands and hopes the oil and gas sector will boom again after consecutive years of growing uncertainty about the future prospects of the sector.
“I think there’s a perseverance that has evolved and a sense of community,” Dion says of what’s change in Fort McMurray in the last five years. “I feel like those of us who have been through all of this are definitely the Fort Mac strong, persevering type for sure.
“What other choice do you have really?… If you don’t have a positive attitude, what do you have?”
BELOW: New townhomes built in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood, in 2016 and now.
Karl Behrisch is also a longtime Fort McMurray resident who owns three properties there. After last year’s flood, he says he, for the most part, took on cleaning and repairs himself and has developed his own view of how to live with the risks that Mother Nature presents the community with.
“It’s really not adversity,” he says of living through a disaster. “Because when it happens, you don’t know it is. It’s just another experience and you take it for what it is.
“Depending on your outlook on life, it’s either fight or flight.”
During the 2016 wildfire event, while two teenagers were killed in a highway crash south of Fort McMurray, nobody died as a direct result of the fire.
“There’s a lot of people that are still recovering and we’re very mindful of that,” Scott says. “There are still people who… have had their lives upended by the fire.”
However, Scott suggests that he believes resilience of the people who live in Fort McMurray, which historically includes large numbers who came to the community from elsewhere in search of earning a better living, is not altogether surprising to him.
“There’s a spirit — a Western spirit — that… I once described it as the people who kept moving west for opportunity,” he says. “They found this amazing community and they can get through challenges.
“We are going to get through every challenge.
“The people of this region rise to every occasion.”
Gareth Norris owns Paddy McSwiggins, a popular pub in Fort McMurray. He says after everything the community has been through, the way people helped each other out after last year’s floods, whether it was by cooking meals for others or helping with cleaning and restoration of damaged properties, the people once again showed each other and the world who they really are.
“Strong’s not even the right word anymore,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”
Hope for the economy
Rebuilding parts of Fort McMurray has been costly as its economy, inextricably linked to the value of oil, sputtered amid a slow recovery from a steep dive in oil prices.
Since then, many in the community have faced more financial woes in the wake of the 2020 flood while the COVID-19 pandemic exacted its own toll too.
Like everywhere else on the planet, Fort McMurray’s restaurant and hospitality sector was battered by restrictions required to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But the community was also hurt by the pandemic leading to a sharp decline in global demand for oil, affecting the community’s most important industry, and having a ripple effect on others.
“I believe that the oilsands are going to be key to the COVID(-19) recovery, not only of this region, but to all of Canada,” Scott says, adding he believes more and more people who left Fort McMurray will eventually come back, and newcomers will continue to arrive.
“I think it’s still going to be a little bit until the economic boom returns, and I do see the day when things are strong again,” he says. “I want to see gradual steady growth in the immediate future.
“I think as soon as we get through COVID(-19), we’re going to see a very, very strong economy in this region.”
Scott says his council has taken steps to speed up that economic recovery through significant tax cuts and continually looking at how the municipality can help small businesses.
He adds that while the oilsands are key to the region’s future, he also believes diversifying the economy will continue to be important.
“It’s been tough,” Norris says of trying to keep his pub afloat the past five years. “People just don’t have the disposable income that they used to have. Everybody was getting laid off.
“We all know what’s happened with the economy and oil and gas, and this (going out to a pub) is a luxury. You can buy beer and go home and you can cook your own food.
“All we can do is try to offer an experience and that’s we’ve been working hard to try to do.”
BELOW: A new hotel on the spot where the Fort McMurray Super 8 motel stood before burning down on May 3, 2016.
Norris says when the pub reopened after the 2016 wildfire, it lost 70 to 75 per cent of its average sales prior to the disaster. He says sales are down 75 per cent from even that amount since the pandemic hit Alberta.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” he says. “Had the community not stepped up, we wouldn’t be here today.
“Getting the place reopened was one thing, but actually finding customers was another — between the economy, the finances of the rebuild.”
Norris says every payday or rent day is difficult and “some bills just get pushed aside.”
“We haven’t covered costs for a long time,” he says, adding he is grateful that suppliers have been willing to work with him through the tough times and that he has a supportive landlord.
“(But) it doesn’t make you sleep better at night, because those numbers just keep piling up.”
Norris says he generally considers himself to be an optimist despite a difficult five years.
“What’s your choice otherwise? Sit at home and cry in your hands? It’s not worth it,” he says. “We literally have lost friends to this… to the mental health aspect of it… (and we) push forward for them.
“Without this community, we would not be here — period… It doesn’t matter what’s going on with the economy — if somebody needs help in this town, literally the whole town steps up without question, and it’s instantaneous.
“We’ve seen that over and over… It’s unlike anywhere else… Unless you live here and see it, you don’t understand it.”
The struggle in the economy is reflected in the demand on the local food bank.
Dan Edwards is the executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank. He says his organization is serving new clients since the pandemic hit, something he attributes to a loss of work for many.
“Our numbers are still just steadily increasing,” he says, adding that “there’s still an economic decline that was happening (before).
“The work itself went away… COVID(-19) just expedited that process.”
Edwards says sometimes the psychological impact of the 2016 wildfire still directly affects people’s ability to work. He says some people have been triggered at times, bringing up the past trauma and leaving them unable to work for days.
“You drive down the hill and you can still see burnt trees,” he says.
Edwards says despite economic hardships, people in Fort McMurray are always supporting the food bank. He says the oilsands companies do their part to help too and that former clients of the food bank do their part to give back when they are able to as well, a phenomenon he says makes sense to him.
“We all come from somewhere else — and there’s Fort McMurray natives… (we just) get the job done,” he says, adding there’s a Fort McMurray attitude when it comes to overcoming adversity.
“We just kind of say, ‘OK, that happened. We can sit and whine about it or we can put some work in…’ Everybody likes to give here… and support each other.”
Gary Harris runs Harris BrandSource Home Furnishings in Fort McMurray and also describes the last five years as “pretty tough.” In 2018 he reopened the store, which used to be part of Sears, under his family name.
“Like any business, (the) first year’s going to be tough,” he says.
But in the store’s second year, he says sales really began to pick up.
“All of a sudden, COVID(-19) hit… Whammo — flood hits. Totally unexpected,” Harris says of 2020. “It’s been a long road.
“It’s going to be like starting a brand new business again… but we’ll get there.”
Harris says furniture sales in Fort McMurray seemed to be at their height about 10 years ago, when the regional economy was booming in general.
“Everybody seemed to be go, go, go,” he recalls. “I don’t think we’ll ever see numbers we saw a decade ago. I don’t think we’ll ever see house prices go that crazy, at least I hope not because that was a little insane.
“I have high hopes for the next five years… I think the price of oil has bounced back… Everybody’s hoping we’ll get our oil to market somehow, or more of it.”
Melanie Galea is a realtor in Fort McMurray and says the housing market in the community is in the healthiest shape she has seen since before the 2016 fire.
“There’s a real confidence in the market and that’s because we’re going to start to see prices rise,” she says. “Homes over $600,000 are starting to sell and they’re selling in multiple offers.
“Oil prices are starting to stabilize — that’s one important piece. The oilsands are not going away so people need a place to live, they need a place to work and Fort McMurray is that opportunity for people to still change their lives.”
Scott says more than 80 per cent of Fort McMurray has been rebuilt since the 2016 wildfire.
“(We’re) well on the path to full recovery, but we’re not there yet,” he says, adding that in the past five years, his council has been committed to doing everything it can to prevent a similar catastrophic event from occurring in the future. “These issues should have been addressed decades ago… This is the council that’s actually taking action.
“We have taken matters into our own hands in many ways with the FireSmart program to protect our region; there’s been a considerable cost but it’s a good investment for this region.
“We need to make sure this region’s protected, not only from forest fires (or) from floods, but from any kind of disaster.”
Just late last month, Wood Buffalo was forced to declare a state of local emergency in response to a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the region.
Despite its latest challenge, Scott says Fort McMurray always overcomes its hard times because of its people, and says he is grateful to everyone who volunteers or helps in any way they can in the face of disaster.
Norris, who came to Fort McMurray from the United Kingdom, says he believes that because much of the community is made up of people who come from somewhere else, the future will continue to look bright.
“It’s kind of instant bonds,” he says. “You instantly make friends here which is something you don’t see anywhere else.”
Norris adds that while there are more questions about the oilsands’ future amid a global push to pursue a more green economy, he doesn’t believe that spells an end for the sector anytime soon.
“Everyone acknowledges that the environment’s an issue,” he says. “Nobody in this town is against the environment. Everything we do is sustainable in terms of the practices they use and people seem to be optimistic.
“People that have been here understand this is the roller-coaster we ride. I think this is my third or fourth doom-and-gloom scenario and we’re still here.”
“I think a lot of us who have been through the fire still have that Fort Mac strong attitude,” Dion says. “I think a lot of people who have come into town after that are surprised by the feeling of community here.
” If anybody in this town is ever in crisis — you should have seen, all over here after the flood… everybody was helping everybody. It was absolutely amazing.
Dion says she hopes residents of Fort McMurray who love the community will be able to “continue to stick around and continue to foster that Fort Mac strong (phenomenon).”
She adds that while the oilsands have taken their share of criticism in recent years, she hopes the oil and gas sector will continue to recover.
“It’s coming back — you can tell,” she says. “I would hope that small businesses continue to thrive up here as well.”
BELOW: The rebuilt Abasand neighbourhood, which was also destroyed by the wildfire.
Harris also thinks Fort McMurray has a knack for persevering to see better days ahead.
“Everybody keeps talking about how strong Fort McMurray is… (people here) seem to bounce back from everything pretty quick,” he says.
Butz says as Fort McMurray is continuing to adapt in order to be better prepared for the risks it faces, he marvels at how the community has come through the past half-decade.
“It’s funny how five years can fly by very quickly, and we’ve been able to absorb a very large wildfire and we’re still here,” he says.
“That’s something to be very proud of… I know it’s been hard.”
–With files from Global News’ Breanna Karstens-Smith and Fletcher Kent and from The Canadian Press
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