After the Flames: Reflections on Fort McMurray

As Fort McMurray continues to rebound and rebuild, the bond between its residents is stronger than ever.

Fort McMurray in winterPhoto: Micheline Landry

Fort McMurray, Two Years On

Fort McMurray has always had a reputation being an exceptionally helpful community, full of giving people. Several of our community organizations have long histories of quick responsiveness whenever there was a need. Many businesses encourage giving back, and community members have made record-breaking donations to crucial charities, such as the United Way. A few different factors have contributed to this attitude of giving. Many McMurrayites are originally from other countries or other Canadian provinces, and the remoteness of this northern town forces people to work together to thrive.

In May 2016, as in most Canadian cities, folks in the communities of the municipality of Wood Buffalo were going about daily life, trying to keep up with their hectic schedules. The busy-ness of life can be tiring, making it hard to focus on what all the effort and expense is for. There seems to be little opportunity to appreciate the fragility of the structure, and the indescribable value of the stakes. That is until a community experiences a crisis—a collective jolt.

When the wildfires raged towards our town on that May morning, the entire community had, in most cases, less than an hour to decide what could fit in the vehicle and what could be left behind—possibly to never be seen again. (Here’s what the experience was like for Fort McMurray resident Eldora Baillie.)

More than six months had passed since the wildfires when I snapped this photo (above). Winter had descended upon us and a comforting blanket of snow that stayed put until spring had restored stillness and quiet.

Walking in our winter landscapes has always held a beautiful magic for me, but this one was different. Reminders of the summer’s fires were still visible: empty house lots, half-repaired homes and scorched trees poking through the snow reminded us that the trauma and scars would not be healed quickly.

It’s now been more than a year since the wildfires and our town is very different. The changes are more than just physical. The fires changed the collective attitude of members of this community. Besides being more aware of their physical surroundings, those who went through that traumatic event are more aware of one another. This is evident in the poignant conversations on social media and in person, with people comparing notes about their May 2016 evacuation and about their lives since.

We listen to one another more intently, and offer empathy. We’re more aware of what is most important to us. We’ve all heard the stories of having five minutes to grab what was most precious—a box of mother’s items, baby photos and mementoes. For the majority of people in Wood Buffalo, this feeling has lingered, and will hopefully grow into a well-rounded philosophy on life. We ask ourselves more frequently, what and whom do we love and who loves us? We need to nurture those relationships because, in the end, that’s what we’ve got to hold on to—which will propel us forward. The rest can be left behind.

Don’t miss more inspiring stories from the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Originally Published in Our Canada