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
Connie’s house had completely burned in
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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.”