After the Fire
/ Author: Inshaal Badar
/ Categories: Guide magazine, Locals, Local 63 /
4670 Rate this article:

After the Fire

Four months after wildfires in Fort McMurray destroyed 2,400 structures and forced nearly 90,000 residents to evacuate, the city is busy rebuilding. But the aftermath of the fire has changed lives forever

A 200-year-old family bible. Her grandmother’s broach. The wheat from the last crop that her father planted. The first gift her grandson ever gave her. All gone. 

Connie Bonney can tell you exactly where these items are placed in her house, or rather, were placed in her house. 

Connie is a Local 301 member employed full-time at the Save-On-Foods store in Fort McMurray. Life was different for her and her family a few months ago. Gardening in the evenings, and spending every spare second she had with her daughters and her grandkids, she was happy and carefree. 

But that all changed very quickly. 

Tuesday, May 3. That was the day that Connie was at work doing a charity sale when she saw puffs of dark smoke emerging from a neighbourhood nearby. Rushing home, and telling herself that everything will be okay, she approached her house, panicked. After calling a few friends and talking to her neighbours, she decided to pack a suitcase and drive out of the city. 

But how does one decide what to take in a small suitcase? How do you pack up 28 years’ worth of memories? She couldn’t. 

She recalls all the holidays her family spent at her house. From New Year’s Eve celebrations to Christmas days and everything in between. She remembers the collection of Christmas ornaments in her basement and her father-in-law’s old shaving cup that she had stored away. 

One of the scariest moments of her life was not knowing where the rest of the family was while she was driving out of the city. With burning houses and trees on both sides of her car, and smoke reaching the clouds above her, she remembered watching a movie where the cars on the road exploded because of a fire nearby. 

“I looked out the window and told myself I’ll get out and run if that happens,” she says. “But where do you go when everything is on fire?” 

She dialled the numbers of her loved ones repeatedly. And the phrase that kept popping up on her screen is still etched in her memory. 

Call failed. Call failed. Call failed. 

Her husband and daughter were at work, and she remembers thinking that her son-in-law had worked a night shift so he was probably still sleeping. She kept driving through the smoke and continued her efforts to reach her family. 

Hours later, they all met her outside of town. While she was praying and thanking God that everyone she loved and cared about was right next to her, she got a call from her alarm company. 

Connie’s house had completely burned in the fire. 

“People keep telling me to be thankful that my family and I are okay,” she says. “And I genuinely am. So I smile when they say that, but it’s not fair because most of them have a home to go back to while I don’t. 

“For the first week, I just walked around in a daze. There were all these things that I had to do, like call the insurance companies and power and gas, but it still didn’t hit me. Until I heard that I might never be able to go back. That killed me because all I wanted to do was stand in my driveway and say goodbye to my house.” 

The rest of the city got to go back on June 1, a “welcome back party” for those who were returning to their homes. There were firefighters on the overpass, deals in every store on home appliances, and discounts at restaurants. 

But Connie wasn’t able to return to see her property until seven days later. 

“When we went back, there was no big ‘welcome back home’ for us,” she says. “I felt forgotten.” 

After two long months of not knowing what was going on, she found out the government was going to let her rebuild in the same neighbourhood. For now, she and her husband are living with their daughter’s family in a fifth wheel. She has been told to not expect a new house for at least two years, but she’s okay with that. 

“Not knowing was the hardest because, until recently, we had no idea what was going on,” she says. “At least now I know that I will eventually have a house to call mine again.” 

Connie says it’s been hard for her and all the other families whose homes burned down because they have not received an adequate amount of information about their old neighbourhood and homes. She says most of the information they receive comes from town hall meetings and social media, but that isn’t enough. 

“It seems like everyone is so focused on the whole ‘yeah, we’re back and the city is okay,’ but no,” she says. “We still have so much to figure out.” 

Despite all the obstacles that she has had to face, she believes this tragic event brought the community and her family together. 

“People from across the world were donating to Fort McMurray and that’s unbelievable,” she says. “There were discounts at hotels and motels outside the city, restaurants were giving out free meals. They had little donation centres that anyone could go to in case they needed to get something. It was an amazing sight to see.” 

But Connie doesn’t see any rebuilding happening for her or anyone else who lost their home anytime soon. 

“It’s really still up in the air right now,” she says. “There’s still the demolition and the air and soil quality testing that needs to happen. There’s no day-to-day changes or updates for us. We’re at a standstill. 

“But it’s strange because in regard to the rebuilding of the city, it really depends on what side of the road you look on. I was at my friend’s house downtown, and in her backyard, if you look outside from the back, it looks beautiful. But you go out front and you see all the burned houses and trees. It’s nothing like how you see it in the movies. It’s much worse.” 

Connie is grateful for all the help she’s received from across the world. She has received money from her insurance company, Red Cross, and the government. Her friends, family, and CLAC have also constantly been in touch with her to make sure she is okay and has everything she needs. But she still wishes this tragedy had never happened. 

“I miss my house,” she says. “And no amount of money anyone could ever give me is going to take away the sadness of not having a place right now to call home.” 

Mike Kaplan works with Connie Bonney at the Save-On-Foods store in Fort McMurray. She refers to him as “her kid” and says that she has been extremely worried about him. She doesn’t say why. 

But after talking to Mike, it makes complete sense. 

Mike lived alone in the basement of his friend’s house when Fort McMurray was ordered to evacuate. 

He remembers the morning vividly. It was a nice, bright day. The weather was beautiful, and he recalls a few of his colleagues mentioning that to him during the day. When he went for his second break of the day, people started talking about how areas of the city had begun to evacuate because they were on fire. His neighbourhood was included in this list. His manager rushed out of the store and drove Mike and another employee to their houses to grab a few things. 

A drive that usually takes less than 15 minutes took more than two hours. By the time Mike reached his house, the fire was five houses away from his. 

He wasn’t able to take much but wishes he had the time to. His prized possession, a replica of the Stanley Cup that was proudly displayed in his living room, was on top of that list. 

Mike thinks about this day a lot. The atmosphere of the city, everyone evacuating, the uncertainty of what was going to happen next. These are feelings he says he will never forget. 

“I still find myself searching for smoke,” he says. “I know it’s over now, but sometimes it feels like it isn’t.” 

He often thinks about how relaxing it was to be sitting around in the backyard of his house, having a few drinks, and playing with the kids who lived upstairs. Sometimes, while waiting for his shift to end, he thinks about what he’s going to do once he gets home. Until he remembers that he doesn’t have a home anymore. He continuously tries to make himself feel better by thinking of those in worse situations than him. 

“I know people who can’t get back to their house because it’s deemed not habitable right now, so they’re stuck in hotels across the province, even though their house didn’t burn down,” he says. “That’s sad because everything is fine; they can see their house but they can’t actually go inside and go back to living their normal lives.” 

Because Mike did not have insurance, he lost everything. And unlike those who had insured homes that burned down, he did not have a large sum of money deposited into his bank account a few days later. He isn’t sitting around for hours writing a contents list for someone to pay him back for everything he lost. 

That’s the hardest part for him. The impact of the aftermath the fire left on his life. Mike is planning on moving to Edmonton. He says that he had started looking online for houses the night before the fire. “This tragedy was a sign,” he says. “I’m supposed to be moving on.” 

Justin Mywaart is also contemplating life in the aftermath of the wildfires. Justin is a CLAC representative who works out of the Fort McMurray Member Centre. He was teaching at CLAC’s stewards conference in Banff when he found out that his house had burned down. 

At two a.m., he received a text from his brother, Jordache, who works as a firefighter in Fort McMurray, letting him know that the house they shared was now gone. 

In the writing course he was teaching at the conference, he had chosen a few excerpts from Hemingway in advance, not knowing about the fire. Coincidentally, he had chosen a short story that talked about a burned-out town. 

He received a follow-up text from his brother the next day. Three words that Justin and his brother don’t say to each other very often: “I love you.” 

From that moment forward until the end of the conference, Justin says he was moving on autopilot. He didn’t give himself time to think about what had happened. After he returned to Fort McMurray, he went to his house and sat in front of it for a long time. 

“I tried to put myself in an introspective state and thought about how I felt,” he says. “It was a confirmation that I’m not particularly materialistic, so even though I had lots of things and lots of memories associated with that house, I tried reminding myself that they’re just placeholders of the event or the thing that I am missing.” 

Being out of touch with his parents for over five hours during the evacuation is what really put things into perspective for him. 

“People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘I am sorry for your loss,’ ” he says. “And that’s strange because that is the kind of thing people say at funerals.” 

However, Justin doesn’t feel somber about the experience. 

“It wasn’t debilitating—not to diminish people who did lose a lifetime’s worth of memories,” he says. “Maybe if I had a family, I would feel differently about this situation, but I was living in that place rather lightly.” 

He says people like his neighbour, who was gone on vacation when his home burned down, have it way worse. 

“His wife is pregnant and they have a two year- old,” he says. “They lost everything. Jewelry, family photos, wedding rings—things they can never replace. So in comparison to stories like that, mine doesn’t seem so sad.” 

Regardless, Justin wasn’t able to sleep well for the first month after the fire. The stress of trying to come up with a plan for the future kept him up. He stayed awake many nights working on his contents list for the insurance company, adding items to his spreadsheet at odd hours of the night. 

“I was trying to put a plan together before the fire had even stopped burning,” he says. “My mind was just all over the place.” 

After the fire, he noticed everyone in the city suddenly had an entrepreneurial attitude. Everyone was working together to rebuild, and to build the city even better than it was before. Although residents still have polarizing views on how the event and situations were handled, Justin has seen those who experienced danger or loss coming together as one community. 

“It’s been really refreshing for people to see Fort McMurray in this really compassionate light,” he says. “Because that is not the way this city was ever seen before. I’m really curious to see how the identity of the city or the people that are here is going to change in the next couple of years.” 

Justin doesn’t think he and his brother will move back in together when their house gets rebuilt in a few years. 

“That house is like a snapshot of all the good times my brother and I had together, memories and moments that I won’t ever forget.” 

The Fort McMurray wildfires are the costliest disaster the country has ever faced. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates total costs of the damage to be around $3.58 billion. 

It is going to take years to rebuild the city. But it may take even longer for the families and people who were affected by this tragedy to fully get back on their feet.


Wave of Generosity

Wayne Rahn and Scott Timmermann, general foremen at CLAC signatory KBR Wabi Ltd., were surprised when they saw buses of families suddenly show up at their camp facilities. They knew of the fires happening an hour away from them but were confused when they saw “No Work Tomorrow” posted on the door at Camp KBR. They soon saw unfamiliar faces roaming the camp. 

“Dogs and children were running around in the halls with their families, which is basically unheard of,” says Scott. “We saw they needed help, so we all pitched in and took extra blankets, towels, and toiletries into the gymnasium for them.” 

Wayne says it was obvious how sad these families were. 

“We did what we could to help them,” he says. “But everyone was sitting around watching the news, slowly seeing buildings and houses being burned down.” 

The families were constantly watching the news to find out whether the fire had reached their homes yet. Others knew their house was safe, but they had been evacuated anyway because of safety concerns. 

Once more displaced families started being evacuated into the camps, it became more crowded and harder to control things. Scott and Wayne saw many of their co-workers coming together to help out in the gymnasium. Changing pillow cases, folding towels and bed sheets, setting up cots and chairs were just some of the activities the workers volunteered to do. 

Not only was there a wave of generosity at the camps but across the country as well. Scott flew to Edmonton and met many individuals who told him that strangers had paid for their flights, given them free rides, and even paid for their hotel rooms. 

“We’re so lucky to be living in Canada,” says Wayne. “Everyone was trying to help in one way or another.”


The Long, Tough Road Ahead

Jay Bueckert, CLAC Fort McMurray regional director, talks about what it was like to not only care for his family but look out for the welfare of his staff and the thousands of CLAC members affected by the wildfires. 

“There were quite a few people who were in my situation, who had responsibility for other people’s welfare while at the same time taking care of themselves and their family. Once we were evacuated, I asked my wife to please take care of the kids without me for a little bit, while I took care of our staff. It was important to take the load off of them so that they weren’t thinking about work and could take care of their families. 

“I did that for a little over a week until everybody had their feet under them. Once some of the pressing concerns were taken care of, I met with my staff and asked them to step up for me now so that I could take care of my family. 

“Work representing our members continued to go on throughout the wildfires. Even though the town was evacuated, many of the sites continued to operate. The work didn’t stop just because we were no longer in Fort McMurray. We continued to get phone calls and dealt with complaints, grievances, and other labour relations issues. Companies were still bidding on work, and winning work, and we still needed to negotiate collective agreements. 

“We had members who lived in Fort McMurray and were being evacuated just like us who wanted to know what help, if any, CLAC was going to be able to give. I didn’t have a lot of answers at that time, but I reassured them that absolutely CLAC was going to be doing something, but we didn’t know what. Our members were very appreciative of the situation, so it gave us a bit more space. 

“Now that we’re back at the Fort McMurray Member Centre, there is so much work to do. My hope is that people will continue to work together to get our city back to where it was pre-fire, and that the goodwill that exists now will continue on. There are aspects of the city that will never be the same as they were before, but I hope that on the political side of things, people will come together for the betterment of our community. 

“I’m so grateful for being in the CLAC family. The support that we’ve received from members that we know, and from members that we don’t know from across Canada—it’s been amazing. 

“We’ve reached out to nearly all of our members who are permanent residents of Fort McMurray who were evacuated. Those people are strong. They’ve been through so much. I think a lot about them and wish them all the best because it’s going to be a long, long road, and it’s going to be tough road for many of us.”


Previous Article Time Crunch
Next Article Who Cares for You?

Theme picker