One year after a wildfire destroyed parts of Fort McMurray, residents are still recovering from its devastating impact, including the municipality’s mayor.
The memories of May 3, 2016 remain vivid in the mind of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake.
That morning, Blake remembers hearing it would be a challenging day because of wildfires in the area, but the consensus was people and property wouldn’t be threatened. However, the situation turned dramatically as the day progressed.
“As I watched the afternoon weather inversion that was predicted occur, I saw the crowning in the trees, the flames were coming,” Blake said.
“As the hours went by, I saw it hit the top of Abasand, which is where people were living.”
As the fire approached the city and residents were fleeing, Blake’s thoughts were on the potential loss of life.
“The image that I was left with is that the people at the end of the line of traffic exodus had not made it out of that subdivision that I can witness firsthand.
“As I made my way to the northern work camp where we ultimately settled for two nights, it was the thought in my mind that we had lost tremendous life as well as the property.
“It wasn’t until 6 a.m. the next morning when I got the update from the REOC [Regional Emergency Operations Centre] and my first question is: ‘How many fatalities?'” Blake said.
But there were no fatalities as a direct result from the wildfire, despite massive flames and smoke moving towards the 88,000 people attempting to leave the region.
In the days and weeks after the devastating wildfire, the focus turned to recovery.
Blake said the early response by emergency responders gave residents hope, especially when they learned more of the city had survived the wildfire than initially expected.
“When we got reports back about how much had actually survived, the ability to get those people back into their community and home so we can begin our cleanup and begin rebuilding life for people,” Blake said.
“I think that early response and reaction is what probably gave people heart and hope when we had lost so much already.”
A year later, the focus is on rebuilding and moving forward, which has faced it’s challenges.
About 2,500 homes were destroyed in the May 2016 wildfire.
The reconstruction has been delayed in some cases because of the amount of debris that has had to be removed, the volume of permits and the number of insurance claims that have to be processed. There have also been delays because of risks and costs of winter construction.
By the end of February, 23 homes that were destroyed were rebuilt and residents had moved back in. Blake expects that number to increase significantly by the end of 2017.
“We have 639 permits that are actually out right now, where they’re in various stages. Whether it’s the foundations or the HVAC or anything else that needs inspections, they’re getting progress.”
“But this spring is when we expect to see the greatest number of applications for development permits.”
The Alberta government announced Monday an additional $2 million in compensation for residents for the 2017 education property tax. Earlier this year, the government committed $5.1 million for 2016 property tax relief.
In total, the provincial government has given $743 million to help the municipality rebuild after the fire.
The Emotional Impact
Blake said coping with what happened a year ago remains an emotional struggle for many residents, some of whom have reached out for help.
“Twenty-five thousand calls to Alberta Health Services is a good example of that… In years before, we probably had about 2,000 for different reasons.
“People are reaching out. They are really doing their best to be what they need to be for their community.”
Blake said she recently got a true indication of the emotional toll the wildfire is still having on residents when the city took a census about whether to commemorate what happened on May 3, 2016.
“Some people wanted no marking at all, others did want to acknowledge the day,” she said. “I likened it to if you lost a loved one in life, you take some time to mourn and that first year is always the hardest. I suspect it’ll be similar for our community as we go through this.”
In the long term, Blake hopes the rebuild will be positive for the region, including its economy.
“I believe… we’re going to have reconciliation between the fire activity and the economy and we’re still going to come forward with a path that says, ‘We are a viable place that citizens will live and have a good life and our industry will continue no matter what the ups and downs in the commodity pricing might be.'”
Blake expects the rebuild to take three to five years, with the majority being finished within three years.