Uncertain future for 'fire refugees'

By Rebecca Penty

Alberta residents who escaped monster blaze weigh whether it will be worth rebuilding, writes Rebecca Penty.
Residents of Fort McMurray escaped the blaze, some stopping to take photos. Pictures / AP
Residents of Fort McMurray escaped the blaze, some stopping to take photos. Pictures / AP

On her frantic escape by car from Fort McMurray, Mary Thomas watched in horror as town landmarks like the Super 8 hotel and the newly opened Denny's restaurant were swallowed up in a wildfire that's engulfed the Canadian oil town.

"I couldn't control my tears," said Thomas, 46, who fled the flames with her husband and two children. She was unsure of the status of her house as of Thursday night as parts of the neighbourhood had been hit. "It's so hard to imagine how we'll move on."

Thomas is among the more than 80,000 people who were forced to flee their homes as wildfires tore through her northern Alberta community, reducing entire neighbourhoods to ash and curbing oil production.

The blaze, which began as a brushfire but quickly overtook the city, had destroyed more than 1600 buildings in Fort McMurray by Thursday. Strong winds and unseasonably warm temperatures continued to carry it into the evening, threatening other communities yesterday. The number of displaced grew again as officials issued mandatory evacuation notices for places where they'd taken cover, such as Anzac - named for the Anzac soldiers who surveyed the area during World War I for construction of a rail line in the region - about 40 minutes' drive southeast of Fort McMurray.

The former northern Alberta boom town has been grappling with an oil market downturn approaching two years that put thousands of residents out of work and caused property values to plummet. Now those who've lost houses and workplaces are weighing how many will still call the place home after the fire burns out. Residents are left to ponder what will be left standing as the fire continues to rage.

"What happens when people don't come back?" said Peter Fortna, 36, over a beer and burger at Earl's restaurant in Edmonton, about a four-hour drive south of Fort McMurray. "It's going to take time to rebuild Fort McMurray and in the meantime, we're going to become a fly-in, fly-out community. All those camps that were empty are going to be filled."

Originally from Airdrie in southern Alberta, Fortna has lived in Fort McMurray since 2008, and was gathering with a group of evacuees like himself less than 24 hours after the fire forced them out.

His townhouse burned down and he said he plans to rebuild, even after his property value fell by more than a third in the oil slump.

"I have lots of friends, though, who couldn't sell their house, who were down C$150,000 ($169,910), and this is their way out," said Fortna, a consultant who does advocacy work for disadvantaged communities including the Metis, Canadians of mixed race.

Fortna's friend Salem Alahmad, 29, is one who won't go back. Born and raised in Fort McMurray, Alahmad also fled to Edmonton. He said the fire accelerated his plans to relocate there, the provincial capital, to be with his fiance after his workplace, a Metis organisation, was destroyed.

Even in the company of good friends, all laughter and smiles, it's clear these evacuees - or "fire refugees" to use the term coined by one - are still processing the gravity of what's happened.

"I'm still shellshocked," Alahmad said.

Many who fled the oil hub earlier watched as familiar landmarks became engulfed in flames. Most drove south, until the fire breached Highway 63, forcing the rest to head north and take refuge at oil-sands work camps.

Other evacuees are taking cover at an exhibition place in Edmonton that's been opened up or finding rooms in Lac La Biche and other communities between the capital and Fort McMurray. Still others left town with their camper trailers despite the municipality's pleas for them to avoid jamming up the roads, and are finding parking lots to set up while they wait out the blaze. In Lac La Biche, a few dozen are sleeping in the hockey arena.

Fortna watched the smoke roll into his own street as neighbours hopelessly sprayed their houses with water, then was forced out of two other neighbourhoods by the flames. He was eventually airlifted out by helicopter with his friends after they were cornered by the fire in a part of Fort McMurray where there was no other road out.

Police officers controlling traffic protected themselves against the smoke.
Police officers controlling traffic protected themselves against the smoke.

Sheldon Dahl, a 36-year-old husband and father of three, braved flames that lapped at the sides of Highway 63 as he headed south through a sky of orange in his minivan, smoke seeping into the vehicle for the worst five-minute stretch of the drive leaving Fort McMurray.

"It felt like I was in a disaster movie," Dahl said. "It was surreal." Originally from Edmonton, the high school teacher plans to rebuild his destroyed home in Fort McMurray, though he said he wonders how many students will be left to teach as some families opt to move back to eastern provinces such as Nova Scotia or Newfoundland and Labrador.

The former boom town that was bursting at the seams just a few years ago dealing with a massive influx of oil sands workers, is now in tatters.

"We have entire neighbourhoods that are gone," Dahl said. "Will we have students to put in these schools?"

Earl's in Edmonton picked up the dinner bill for the dozen or so friends who met to share their harrowing stories of the last couple of days and hopes for Fort McMurray's future. Another who joined them from Edmonton picked up the drink tab.

As the evacuees tried to move past their loss and focus on the subject of rebuilding, they were also keenly aware that the crisis hadn't ended, as the fire continued to cover more ground through the night.

"It's not over," Alahmad said. "We're in the worst time right now."

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