Things we lost in the fire
Two months after a huge wildfire almost destroyed the Canadian city of Fort McMurray, Susan Schulman meets the inhabitants trying to piece together their lives and homes
3rd May 2016 (Taken from: #23)
“It was like you were going to hell in that moment,” Mohammed Sadiki recalls. “The kids were frantic; their mother was frantic. Everyone was leaving town in a panic. And we just sat there in gridlocked traffic, not moving, flames on both sides of the car, just watching the gas needle drop.”
“Acorns were exploding, embers were burning my arms,” says Vaughn Zacharias, 55, extending his arms to show the burn scars. He and his wife, Darlene, 48, were in different places when the evacuation order was issued, and had to make their way out of town separately.
“It was pitch dark from the smoke, you couldn’t even see the headlights. The flames on my left came right over the car and onto the other side,” says Darlene. “When I found Vaughn, I was just crying and crying and I said I didn’t think I’d make it. He said, ‘Neither did I.’”
“At that moment, people were just doing one thing – saving their lives,” says Mohammed.
On 3rd May 2016, an inferno like none before descended on Fort McMurray, forcing the immediate and rapid evacuation of the entire population of 88,000. Images of a never-ending line of cars sitting motionless as huge walls of flames soared alongside them, the sky darkened with black billowing clouds of smoke, filled newspapers and TV news worldwide. Eventually the queue of cars inched its way out, taking up to 24 hours to cover the 270 miles to take refuge in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Miraculously, no one died in the evacuation that day. But by the time the fire was classified as under control in early July – authorities believe it’s unlikely to be fully extinguished before summer 2017 – it had immolated close to 1.5 million acres of land, and destroyed 2,400 homes.
Two months after the fire I meet security guard Mohammed Sadiki at his post where he watches over the ruins of the Centennial trailer park. Originally from Pakistan, he emigrated to eastern Canada but then headed west to Fort McMurray 12 years ago in search of a job. “Nowhere in Canada could you find work like here,” he says.
This isolated town in the middle of a vast boreal forest is the heart of Alberta’s energy industry. Forty-five kilometres north of Fort McMurray, just before the road runs out, are the Athabasca Oil sands. With the largest single oil deposit in the world – an estimated 1.74 trillion barrels – it is an important driver for Canada’s economy. People have flocked here from all over the world.
But everything is different now. Behind Mohammed, an eerie, white, skeletal landscape of twisted car frames and rubble merges into charred trees behind a blue chain link fence. A pickup truck with three big dogs in the back pulls up at the gate next to Mohammed’s checkpoint.
“We had our beautiful home on Lot 52,” says the driver, 50-year-old Blair Doucet, pointing at the expanse of cremated homes beyond. He has seen the wreckage before but his wife, Stephanie, has not and he is worried about how she might react. “She was crying all last night,” he confides. He and his son watch in the rear-view mirror as her little blue car rounds the corner and she pulls up behind them.
The Doucets were the first to be told to leave their home, Blair explains, and took a room at the hotel across the street, away from the trees that lined the edges of their trailer park. “We sat and watched the ballet of the choppers and water bombers doing their best to tackle the beast. We were certain they’d get it under control.” When the fire didn’t come to their area, they tried to go home to get some of their belongings – but they weren’t allowed in by the police. “We could have saved everything,” Blair says bitterly. On the third day, they watched from across the street as their home went up in flames. “That was when our world changed,” Stephanie adds softly.
Stephanie is a warm, energetic, grounded woman with a purple stripe streaked through her dark hair. I climb into her car and we drive through the gates as she takes her first look at what has become of their life. “Gosh,” she gasps, looking at the twisted rubble to the right. “That was a huge house.”
There is nothing there now. White sealant has been sprayed thickly on ruins to prevent toxins leaching into the water table and ashes blowing into the river. Charred, blackened trees, leafless and dead, tower over the ghostly scene.
We sat and watched the ballet of the choppers and water bombers doing their best to tackle the beast. We were certain they’d get it under control”
We continue slowly down the road. “That was our friend’s house,” Stephanie says, pointing to a chalky patch of ruins. We drive for another 25 metres in silence. “And there,” she says, pointing straight ahead, “that is ours.” She gets out of the car and takes in the contorted mound in front of her. “That is our beautiful home.”
Blair and son put on protective slippers and gloves and start scrambling around in the wreckage looking for something to save. “This was our spot. Our home. Friends came over, we had barbecues. It looked so pretty,” Stephanie says. “We had a beautiful bedroom with a hardwood floor.” Blair is not finding anything in the wreckage and seems to be getting more and more worked up. “What do we do now? I don’t even know if I even want to save anything,” he says, distressed.
Something catches Stephanie’s eye. She leans over and extracts two pieces of a small broken ceramic heart from the rubble. Rubbing them clean, she puts the two pieces together and holds them up for Blair to see. The motto inscribed on the heart comes together. They look at each other and smile. “All you need is love,” it reads. This one piece is all they can find to save. They take it as a good omen.
The 15 kilometre-long dual carriageway that joins the airport and the town is lined with fir trees, large patches of which are charred. Billboards issue a series of exhortations as you near the damaged city.
“Thank you for staying safe”
“Thank you for being resilient”
“We will rebuild together”
“We are here. We are strong”
And finally, without a trace of irony, “Land available”.
When I visit in early July, Fort McMurray is just starting to come back to life. The population has begun to return from a prolonged mandatory evacuation and the city is beginning to grapple with the clean-up and rebuilding task ahead.
It is a massive job. Virtually every building in Fort McMurray has been affected at some level. Air-conditioning units, left running in the rapid escape, sucked toxic smoke into their systems; the siding on homes spared by the capricious fire hangs warped and melted from the ferocious heat. And these are the buildings that survived. Between 10 and 15 percent of all homes in the town were completely incinerated and 10,000 people have been left homeless. The cost of the fire has not been finalised but it will be huge: insurance companies are expected to have to pay out around $9 billion (£5.38 billion) in rebuilding costs alone.
A huge toll has been exacted on the community. In a stark reflection of the emotional impact, an unprecedented 13,000 people sought the help of a therapist between 1st June and 4th July alone – in a typical month, that number would be around 100. A group of 20 additional mental-health therapists have been brought in to cope with the extreme demand. Everyone I speak to describes being haunted, their panic set off by simple triggers – dark clouds, passing helicopters, charred trees on a hillside. Even seeing their car’s petrol guage halfway to empty can be enough to bring back desperate, jarring memories of crawling out of the inferno at five miles per hour.
The financial toll taken by lost wages, lost jobs, lost property and lost homes has led to unprecedented levels of reliance on the local Wood Buffalo food bank. I meet the bank’s executive director, Arianna Johnson, at her office in the back of the warehouse, where a half-naked man grins from a calendar tacked on the wall above her. “The local firefighters raised money for us with this calendar,” she says, laughing. “So I feel I have a moral obligation to display it!” Arianna and her team handed out almost as many food hampers in June 2016, after people had been allowed to return, as they did in the whole of 2015. Almost all of these were given to clients who had never used the food bank before. Arianna has had to hire seven extra staff to cope with the demand but worries they are still not reaching everyone in need. “How many people aren’t accessing the food bank out of pride?” she asks.
The impact of the disaster is likely to last far beyond the crisis, says Arianna. She expects to see the heavy reliance on food hampers sustained or even increased over the coming three to five years.
However, when you arrive in downtown Fort McMurray very few signs of the crisis are immediately visible. Instead of the incinerated town I expected, I see spacious avenues lined with tidy strip malls, offices and a casino. Only the yellow tape blocking access to a building here and there suggests anything has significantly changed.
This is the 90 percent of Fort McMurray that was saved from the inferno, a result hailed as a big win by the city authorities. Here, the structures remain intact and damage to buildings is largely internal, including contamination of ventilation systems, spoilage of perishables and smoke damage. It strikes me how easy it would be for those whose homes remain standing to return, resume their lives and put the fire behind them.
It is an option not available to those whose homes were obliterated – the “10 percent” as they have become known locally.
The Budget desk is deserted when I arrive at the Quality Hotel on Gregoire Drive to pick up my rental car, and no one at the hotel knows where the representative has gone. A Somalian couple joins me in the queue: Sadiha, eight months pregnant, leans heavily against the desk, as husband Abdi explains that they want to rent a truck so they can move back to town from Edmonton, where they have been renting temporary accommodation since the fire. I call the Budget phone number on my reservation and the three of us turn our gaze as the desk phone in front of us rings pointlessly. Sadiha and Abdi trail off.
Between 10 and 15 percent of all homes in the town were completely incinerated and 10,000 people have been left homeless”
The Quality Hotel has become something of a clearing house for those trying to figure out life after the evacuation. Just across from reception, a couple sit with insurance contents appraiser Moiz Mohammed at a high bar table. Together the sad-looking trio pore over a computer as it flashes images and lists of everything the couple lost in their destroyed home and the woman, in a low, steady voice, explains the significance of items that might otherwise seem trivial.
Moiz is with the Vancouver-based Specialised Property Evaluation Control Services (Specs). He has come to record and create lists of all the contents lost by households in the fire, lists which will then be sent off for appraisal. The work is not easy. “It is tough to go over stuff which is dear to people, which they have inherited, which they’ve had for 50 years. If someone has lost a wedding dress, how do you put a value on that?” He sighs as another couple approaches. “Sentimental value — it’s hard but we try and help.”
Darlene Zacharias and son Adam, 25, are perched in the lobby of the Quality Hotel, a collection of small suitcases at their feet. Their curly-haired dog, Pork Chop, tugs at his lead excitedly. Darlene’s husband, Vaughn, is hovering, biting his lip. It’s been a difficult day. They have just returned from seeing the remains of their house for the first time.
The Zachariases’ comfortable home used to be the social hub of Abasand, the neighbourhood in which they lived. The place was always filled with friends, their doors were always open – and their Sunday brunch was legendary. But now the home they’d nicknamed “the Charlie Brown house” lies in ruins, incinerated.
“I’d seen photos but nothing prepared me. It was like looking at the bottom of the sea after the Titanic.” Darlene tells me as her eyes well with tears. “I’ve cried every day since it happened, saying I want to go home. But this [the remains] isn’t our home. We needed to see it but I almost feel lost now… To go from everything to absolutely nothing, not a can opener, not a blanket… It is a real smack in the face, waking up every day realising we are homeless.”
Before the fire, the couple had a plan. Vaughn had been weakened by severe bouts of life-threatening illness over the past few years, leading them to decide to retire in five years, when he turned 60. All had been going smoothly. Both had good jobs, their nest egg was growing comfortably and their house, their big investment, was worth a substantial sum in the expensive Fort McMurray property market.
Then it all went up in flames. Both Darlene and Vaughn were laid off and are now unemployed. “And, instead of my big investment, I own a hole in the ground,” says Vaughn. A hole in the ground with a mortgage.
As Vaughn takes me through their expenses – condo fees, mortgage, rent, existing condo contracts and debts, the power bill to the municipality for their uninhabited neighbourhood – and weighs them against the $19,000 Canadian dollars (£11,355) the insurance will pay toward out-of-home rental, Darlene is visibly distressed. “We’ve worked all our lives for this,” she says. “To have to start again now, aged 55… People say to us ‘at least you’re okay’ but I don’t want to hear this. We are not okay. We have lost everything.”
Two months after the fire, rebuilding has not yet begun. Mandatory demolition permits have not even been issued by the municipality. Residents of homes which escaped the devastating caprice of the flames in the most heavily hit areas have neither been allowed in nor have they been told whether the city judges rule their homes to be habitable.
The ten percent are in purgatory. They feel frustrated and let down, especially by the municipality. “I want the government to step in and get it cleaned up and get our condo rebuilt. Instead they want to hold off,” Vaughn says. “I want to bulldoze it and start again. If we can’t do that, they should give us a hand, a place to stay. Don’t throw us an anchor.”
To go from everything to absolutely nothing, not a can opener, not a blanket… It is a real smack in the face, waking up every day realising we are homeless”
Everyone says the same thing. Nobody seems to know what the hold-up is. Speculation is rife, animus towards the city council widespread. “We don’t control anything now. We don’t control our own destiny,” agonises Arianna Johnson.
It takes no time at all to leave the devastated areas behind and arrive at a Starbucks – just ten minutes between destroyed lives and a latte in the summer sun. The divide is glaring and pretty much everyone is conscious of it.
Emmanuel joins me at breakfast. He doesn’t want to give his last name, but he does want to talk about the fire and the aftermath. He is from New Brunswick, has a heavy equipment business and was called in to use his machines to help with the firefighting effort two days after the evacuation. He describes the scene that greeted him as like something out of Apocalypse Now. His house came through unscathed but he says he has many friends who weren’t so lucky with their own homes.
Communications professional and longtime resident Theresa Wells explains how the experience of the fire has brought the community closer together. “‘Were you here on 3rd May?’ will be what people ask for years to come,” she says. “This has changed Fort McMurray. It has created a bond of experience that nothing can touch.”
But there are also fears that a divide between those who lost their homes and those who didn’t will grow. “It looks like it’s back to normal,” Tina, 47, tells me over coffee, “but it is not. My daughter has friends who lost their places. We can go back home, but they can’t. You feel bad even saying you have a house. There’s a real divide. Four months from now, we will be okay but the people who lost homes won’t.”
And resentment, according to Emmanuel, will go in both directions. “Division will also be about those whose houses weren’t burned looking at the better replacement houses insurance money will build for other people,” he says.
Tina is as frustrated and angry with the
authorities as everyone else here seems to be. “They need to do something and no one is helping. Not [Canadian president] Justin Trudeau, not [Alberta premier] Rachel Notley – no one.” She gets angrier and angrier as she speaks. “People who have lost homes want to rebuild – and they are being held back by the town council! Winter is going to start soon, what are they going to do then? People are getting really stressed.”
In this far northern city, winter is fierce – temperatures regularly hit -30C and it begins early. The ground begins to freeze by early October: when that happens, construction becomes impossible until spring.
My house needed to burn down before the town realised it needed firebreaks”
If rebuilding has not begun by September, explains Tina, it will be almost a full year since the fire before anything can happen. “It somehow doesn’t seem like they want to rebuild,” she remarks. This may be true. In early June, mayor Melissa Blake said she was not certain that the city’s most damaged neighbourhoods would be rebuilt, with town officials citing the high expense.
But the most damaged areas of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways are also the city’s oldest. In a town known disparagingly within Canada as ‘Fort McMoney’ for the many people who come solely to work in well-paid oil-industry jobs, these are neighbourhoods with long-term residents who have deep local attachments. Their populations include many Métis, the Cree-speaking First Nations aboriginal peoples who are the area’s original inhabitants. For people who lost their homes and everything in them, the land is their only remaining connection to their lives.
I lose count of the times I hear people say “We never thought it could happen here”. Now that it has happened, they are struggling to come to terms with the fact. “I never felt unsafe until the day I evacuated. Now I don’t feel safe anywhere,” says Darlene Zacharias. Many people are questioning why more precautions weren’t taken. They are wondering why the recommendations of a panel convened in the wake of the 2011 fire in nearby Slave Lake – a fire which destroyed 30 percent of the community and forced what was, until the Fort McMurray fire, the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history – weren’t implemented; why the full range of changes to protect communities from wildfires outlined and funded by Canada’s FireSmart programme had not been made. The municipality is making firebreaks now, but Darlene remarks bitterly that “My house needed to burn down before the town realised it needed firebreaks.”
There is no quick fix to heal the trauma, to regain a sense of safety and to rebuild homes and lives. Progress, however, is gradually being made. In early August, the Red Cross announced a cash injection of $299 million in donations to support residents. As of 11th August 2016, 1,049 demolition permits had been issued and a phased re-entry allowing access – but not habitation – to standing properties has been slated to begin as soon as the health authorities have given the go-ahead.
And, finally, also on 11th August, the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo issued the first rebuilding permit since the wildfire. It is a big milestone, and a step in the right direction, but with 2,400 homes destroyed and winter just around the corner, it will bring little respite for the Zacharias family and others in their position.
One of the last people I meet, 75-year-old Mary Cardinal Sykes, lost everything to the fire and, like so many here, is trying to rebuild her life. “That fire, I call it Satan’s work,” she says. “I have my moments, but I am starting to get a more positive attitude. I have decided I want to come back to the city. Now, I am looking at it as a new beginning.”
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