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This Guy Had Two Houses Burn Down in Wildfires One Year—and 1,300 Kilometres—Apart

Having now lost homes in both Fort McMurray and BC, Jason Schurman healed by tattooing over the flames on his arm.

Sarah Berman

Sarah Berman

Since his home in Fort McMurray burned down last summer, Jason Schurman has had a lot on his mind. He says his days turned into a non-stop stream of work, phone calls with insurance companies, and piled-up bills.

As a tough summer quickly turned into a tougher winter, Schurman decided to cover up the flame tattoos on his left arm—he didn't want to be constantly reminded of the terror and suffering his family went through.

As it turns out, Schurman got an even worse reminder last month. His second home, near Williams Lake, BC, burned to the ground just like his place in Fort Mac. But instead of therapy, he booked another tattoo.

"It was funny, when I went into the tattoo shop recently again to get more work done, the guy said something joking, like 'What, did you have another house burn down?'" Schurman told VICE. "I was like, 'Yeah, I did actually.'"

VICE caught up with Jason to talk about shitty coincidences, insurance challenges, and the psychological benefits of tattoo gun-induced pain.

What's left of Jason's BC home (left) and Fort McMurray home (right). Courtesy Jason Schurman/Facebook

VICE: After your first home burned down, did you ever imagine a second fire was possible?
Jason Schurman: No, not at all. We were still completely consumed with the first one. It literally consumes you to the point where you can't think about anything but your most immediate concerns. Like my son and wife have no clothes, we have nowhere to live. I can't explain it, it's like a cloud state—a surreal feeling that's all encompassing.

The first time we were evacuated. Our son was five at the time. On that day my wife took him to afternoon kindergarten. Later she got a call from her sister, saying 'You need to pick up your son now, there's fire across the street from the school.' My wife bolted up there, she was the last vehicle allowed into Beacon Hill. Police were cordoning off the road. She picked my son, and there were flames at the side of the road, propane tanks exploding. I was at the gym, completely oblivious. It was smoky but it had been smoky for weeks, it wasn't out of the norm. Edmonton's usually three or four hours away, but it took us 19 to get there. If you've ever wondered what it's like to go idle speed for 400 kilometres, it's not fun.

How did you find out about the second fire? What was your first thought?
You're kidding me! The fire had been close to the property. I was talking to our tenant. He sent me pics when the fire burned right up close to the house. Forestry brought in hoses and a water bladder. There was some damage, but they put everything out by the sounds of it. Then our tenant started volunteering with the firefighters. He was surrounded by fire—it really is a log house in the middle of a wildfire—so it wasn't the best place to have all of his belongings. He moved to a safer location, and I was trying to get up there to take a look and assess the damage. I texted him on my way up, he said 'I just talked to one of the forestry guys, he's saying your house burned down.' I'm like, what?! I get that sinking feeling. I'm still dealing with insurance on the other side. Now I'm staring straight in the face of a second massive undertaking. It just hit me like a ton of bricks, like wow, how does that happen twice?

It's hard to believe. What has your acceptance process been like?
I honestly try to deflect my attention, to keep myself from thinking about it. My day job is finding solutions and eliminating barriers. When I get home now, I'm doing the same thing. One of my coping mechanisms has been tattoos. I was already planning to get tattoos after the first fire. I had flames on my left arm and I'm like 'Those are getting covered up immediately!'

What post-fire tattoos did you get?
I was limited because it was an extensive cover up. I had to choose dark, cool colours. My options were some kind of Japanese art, like koy fish, or Day of the Dead stuff with lots of roses, lots of lines. I went with the Day of the Dead—it was colourful, a bit more happy than what I've been going through. The constant pain of a tattoo also takes your mind completely off everything else. It was nice in terms of having the ability to turn my brain off and focus on something other than losing everything I own.

Jason's new (left) and old (right) tattoos. Courtesy Jason Schurman/Facebook

What has the rebuild in Fort Mac been like? Did you expect to have your home back by now?
I was pretty realistic in terms of how long it would take to rebuild. I know what it was like here in 2006 during the boom, with houses going up everywhere. Those were under the best conditions with a lot of money floating around. Last year the house building market was bottomed out based on what happened with oil. Those companies packed up and went back to Edmonton or Calgary, and now we have to bring those resources back into Fort McMurray. There's a lot of houses not rebuilt. On our street alone, I look at our neighbours and I don't see anybody with anything up.

Any lessons you're taking away from all this?
I've had a lot of encounters and discussions since this happened, and I think a lot of people don't really understand the process when a house burns down—let alone two. You're still required to pay for it. You can't live in it, you can't rent it, you can't do anything. On the surface, yeah, you have insurance to protect you. But that process isn't always straightforward and quick. The bills don't wait—those keep coming. It starts stretching things fairly quickly, it starts to hurt your credit. Things start to mount and mount. But the fact is there's always a positive you can pull out of even the most horrendous situations. I work much closer with my wife, it's brought us together in a lot of ways.

Is climate change on your mind at all?
I've read some stuff on it, and I think it's easy to wrap it up into a nice package and call it climate change, but I don't know. I'm by no means an expert, but I do know fire suppression techniques have improved a lot, and that might be a contributing factor. Are we doing such a good job at stopping fires that it gets to a critical state? Everything's just tinder dry. Or it might be a function of everything at once: improved fire suppression, climate change, and maybe a lack of comprehension around best practices in the woods. One guy in Williams Lake set off fireworks the other day. For most people that's a terrible idea, but he was celebrating he was back in his home.

Lucky guy. Anything unexpected you wish you could bring back?
Not from a material perspective. What I do miss is being able to have free time to unwind and relax, because there's no relaxation. Now I'm just constantly looking at how to solve a problem. It's like two full time jobs. The day those claims close will be a happy day for me.

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