Here's what life is like after the massive fire in Canada's Fort McMurray

After forest fires levelled entire neighbourhoods in the oil-rich Alberta town, residents are returning to find that rebuilding might not be as easy as they were promised.
June 28, 2016, 4:25pm
One of the neighbourhoods decimated by the fire. (Rachel Browne)

VICE News has been following the wildfires plaguing northern Alberta. Check out more of that coverage here.

More than a dozen people line up in the rain outside the only food bank in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Even as the downpour gets stronger, they wait in place holding green laminated numbered cards — most of them using this service for the very first time. It's Monday afternoon and since the food bank wasn't open over the weekend, this place is especially hectic as one team of workers take the green cards, and another team hurries in and out of the building with boxes of food to load into clients' parked cars.

Advertisement

Over the last two weeks, since it reopened, the bank has fed some 3,000 people, displaced and put out by the raging wildfires that hit the town in May, prompting a state of emergency and a mandatory evacuation of the city — the longest in Canadian history — and wiping out entire neighborhoods. While climate change has been listed a factor for extremely dry weather and unruly forest fires in western Canada, Alberta wildfire investigators have said the Fort McMurray fires, also known as "The Beast," were likely caused by "human activity" and police have put a call out to people asking for any information. The police say they are treating the investigation as a criminal matter.

Earlier this month after the fire was finally held at bay, residents were allowed to return home for the first time to survey the damage and begin rebuilding their lives. Blue banners with phrases like: "We are here, we are strong," and "safe resilient together" adorn the street lamps on the main streets downtown, which has come alive again with bustling patios, fast-food restaurants, and shops. Most parts of the city were untouched by the fire, and it's easy to go through life here without seeing any signs of damage.

Downtown Fort McMurray, banners with #ymmstrong and other uplifting phrases from the street lights. The downtown core, along with most of the city, was untouched by the fire. (Rachel Browne)

"I'm grateful we've been able to pull it together," Arianna Johnson, the food bank's executive director, said in her office. She's wearing a black ball cap with the #ymmstrong hashtag on the front. "But people have come back here because of financial burden, they have to still pay their rent here and other expenses, and they can't afford to feed their families right now."

Fort McMurray, once the booming heart of Canada's oil sands industry, was already reeling from plummeting crude prices, and the fire was the last thing the economy needed.

Advertisement

In less than two weeks, her group has given out more than 1,400 food hampers to people, 95 percent of whom have never used a food bank before. On top of that, Johnson says the vast majority of people using the food bank now are people of color who work in the city's service and hospitality industries.

"They've been told to come back to town, but the businesses they work for aren't open yet. They've been told by their bosses that they need to be back here and be ready to work the minute they do open. Or they have returned to work and they haven't been paid yet," she continued as she signed 300 thank-you cards for donors. "It's going to take a lot of time for people to get back on their feet."

VICE News rode into Fort McMurray in May as the fires continued to burn. Watch below.

Later in the afternoon, Rawaida Assaf stands alone behind the counter at Red Wolf, the shop she manages on Franklin Avenue, next to the building where the Red Cross has set up to help people arriving home. Assaf reopened the shop — which offers an assortment of BB guns, knives, e-cigarettes, bongs, and skull t-shirts — a couple weeks ago, but no one has bought anything. "I'm just here to see everyone again, even if there are no customers, people come and check that I'm here, and I'm trying to get back to normal," she says. The rain is coming down so hard that it's entering the front of the store and setting off a motion detector.

Assaf's apartment in Beacon Hill, where she lived with her children, burned to the ground. She recently had the chance to see it in ruins, recognizing it only by the fragments of her torched antique carpet that somehow managed to survive the flames.

What remains of Assaf's building. (Rachel Browne)

"My 11-year-old daughter is still traumatized, we all are," said Assaf, who said she had to flee conflict in Lebanon before coming to Canada to resettle in Fort McMurray. "I never thought I'd have to put my daughter through something like this, like what I saw over there."

Related: On a Scale of 1 to 10, the Air Pollution in Fort McMurray is a 38

She added that she didn't have complete insurance on her belongings, and therefore has to start over again with nothing. "We're living in a one-bedroom hotel now, but it's not permanent, we need to know what's going to happen next soon"

For many who have returned to Fort McMurray, the re-entry process has been frustrated by what they describe as a lack of communication from the city's municipal council. Those who lived in the areas completely decimated by the fire, such as Waterways, Beacon Hill, and Abasand, don't yet know if they'll ever be able to rebuild in the area, pending further government testing of the area. And last week, city councillors voted to drastically increase their wages in order compensate for the work they'll have to do in the aftermath of the fire. The salaries of part-time councillors have jumped from $36,000 to $75,000, and the mayor will be paid $150,000 annually, up from $123,000.

Signs and banners thanking volunteers and blasting Air Canada, as the airline was accused of gouging Fort McMurray residents trying to leave the city. (Rachel Browne)

For the first time since the fire, the city held an hour-long telephone town hall conference on Monday evening to answer questions from residents about the re-entry so far, and plans for the future. Questions were submitted on a website, or asked directly by callers. In the early days of the evacuation, the provincial government held nightly telephone conference calls to provide updates.

Questions ranged from why rebuilding isn't happening in the areas most impacted by the fire to when full transit service will begin, but those following along on social media were less than impressed with the format and answers provided by those in charge. Councillors are scheduled to meet Tuesday night in person to discuss a number of matters related to re-entry.

Advertisement

The — andrew barley (@Andrewmbarley)June 28, 2016

Incredible we've gone almost 45min and no mention of raises — Sinead (@SidlySquidly)June 28, 2016

"I expect a huge crowd of people to show up there to try to get the council to get answers to the things bothering us still," said one woman sitting outside the Tim Horton's coffee shop near the mall downtown.

Back in the food bank, Johnson finishes signing her thank-you cards. The lineup outside remains steady.

"If you look at other disasters in the province, the knowledge and awareness around what happened begins to dwindle, but the impacts will be felt many years later," she said. "If there's a silver lining on anything that's happened here, I think that the country and maybe even the world is starting to understand that Fort McMurray isn't oil sands. The world has beaten up on us pretty hard over the years, but we will continue to take care of each other. This is our home."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne