One year after the costliest disasters Canada has ever seen, the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray experienced successes and challenges while rebuilding after the 2016 wildfire that tore through the area – and it wasn’t just the people affected. In April 2017, Annie stands in front of where her stable once stood, and where a new one is being built.
Relics of the community’s motto, “we stand together,” stand in Fort McMurray as trucks carry supplies to the communities and homes that are still being rebuilt.
Scott Jennings is a firefighter who has just returned to the Fort McMurray area for the new season. In the spring of 2017, fire teams are hoping to put lessons learned from last year’s disaster to use.
Scott Jennings cuts down the dead trees in the scorched forest surrounding the Fort McMurray air tanker base.
Melisa Leblanc says her daughter Abby has been sick constantly since the Fort Mac fire. Melisa's family is pretty sure their home is clean, but questions the safety of the city as a whole.
Ever since the family moved back to the city after the fire, Abby has been hit with a laundry list of illnesses that her mom ticks off on her fingers: pneumonia, tonsillitis, strep, ear infections.
As she inventories her daughter’s medications and inhalers on the kitchen counter, Melisa Leblanc said that even though she and her husband decided to return after the fire, she’s not yet convinced that her kids are living in a clean environment. “If you asked me again today? I’d think it through,” she said. “I don't know if I made the right decision at the end of the day.”
Tonia Rowe takes her kids for a walk in front of the stretch of burned forest across the street from her house. Her youngest son, Henderson, 1, has had lung, throat and ear infections, she said. Her husband stayed in the house while it was getting cleaned up and ended up with pneumonia. Even the dog had lung issues, she said.
Burnt trees still stand behind a neighbourhood in the process of being rebuilt.
Sandra Legacy sits in a new rental home that is yet to be unpacked. She was diagnosed with PTSD after losing her home in Abasand, Fort McMurray and has become a passionate advocate for better mental health resources in the city.
Sandra Legacy holds a scrapbook she made of her house that burned to the ground in the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. She and her husband had only lived there for only a year and a half.
Dr. Emmanuel Osegbue says the number of patients looking for mental health help has increased by about a quarter since the fire, and he’s not sure they’re able to get the help they need in the city.
Some neighbourhoods were almost entirely destroyed by the flames, but newly rebuilt homes are rising up from the ashes.
Jon Tupper and his three-year-old daughter, Lillian, inspect their indoor garden in April, 2017, in anticipation of taking their green-thumbs outside when weather permits. One year earlier, Tupper watched from his backyard as a fire that would soon be dubbed The Beast began to devour the surrounding Boreal Forest. The avid gardener said he felt robbed of a summer after the fire destroyed any chances of flourishing gardens or crops in the area.
Loretta Boucher, vice president of Sakasteew Transportation, jumped into action the night of the Fort McMurray fire. Buses from her family-owned business were on the road, shuttling people through town, to nearby camps, and out to the airport.
Loretta Boucher runs a business in Fort McKay First Nation, and said that, while she’s proud of how her town pulled together during an emergency, they’re still suffering from the economic fallout.
Approximately 5,000 evacuees fleeing fire found refuge in Fort McKay First Nation, the small community down the road with a population just 1,000, saw its population swell overnight the night of the wildfire.
Bernie Schmitte is the forest area manager for Fort McMurray and area. He is in charge of both forest management and firefighting for an area of boreal forest that starts south of Fort McMurray and stretches up to the Northwest Territories.
Maps in Bernie Schmitte’s office illustrate the location of past wildfires.
Bernie Schmitte’s Fort McMurray office is a command centre full of screens that track everything from the location of lightning strikes to the amount of food each camp has in stock. “Wildfires are becoming larger and more complex and harder to fight,” he said, noting his department constantly evolves to keep up.
Gail Hanifan and her family lost everything in the wildfires of Fort McMurray, Alta. But they count themselves among the lucky ones.
Gail Hanifan reflects on some of the irreplaceable things lost in the Fort McMurray fire – their wedding video, the letter Gail wrote for her daughter when she was a baby, or the video diary she made for her son are gone. “Those things I grieved the most for,” she said. A year after the runaway wildfire changed course and smashed into the northern Alberta city and forced almost 90,000 people away from their homes, the Hanifan family remains committed to the town they say is unlike anywhere else.
The Hanifan’s former neighbourhood of Waterways was completely flattened by the fires, but construction is underway to build new homes.
At 40 weeks pregnant, Kyle McLaren took refuge in Calgary during the Fort McMurrary wildfire. She soon discovered that her Abasand home was completely destroyed and she and her fiancé would have to start over. "I just finished putting the nursery together," she said.
One year later, Kyle McLaren and her fiancé are renting a home with their daughter Dawson, who is now almost one year old.
Kyle McLaren’s daughter, Dawson, was born safely in Calgary on May 13 at 10:13 a.m. McLaren says without her, she’s not sure she would have made it through the fire. Dawson is too young now to realize the great escape her parents made to deliver her safely in Calgary. “It’s a life changing thing. It’s incredible,” McLaren said. “So I think it might be one of those things you tell at her wedding day.”
Despite not being engulfed in flames, some homes were so close to the heat that the siding melted off the buildings.
Dubbed “The Beast,” the Fort McMurray forest fire burned 5,890 square kilometres of land, which is about the size of P.E.I. It's the most expensive disaster in Canadian history with $3.7 billion in insured losses, which is double the Calgary floods.