Fort McMurray residents still recovering from wildfires three years later – some residents feel “hopeless”

Fort McMurray residents still recovering from wildfires three years later – some residents feel “hopeless”

It will be three Christmases since the Fort Mac wildfires – what locals refer to as, “The Beast.”

Some residents still haven’t returned home.

According to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, only 33% of the 2,579 homes destroyed by the fire have been rebuilt.

“The recovery is a lot slower than I think people imagined it to be; and I believe that is probably due to the economy as well as the fire,” says Evelyn Usher, a case manager for Samaritan’s Purse. The organization is still active in Fort McMurray.

“Typically, we are working with people who lost their homes in the fire and didn’t have insurance, or were under-insured,” Usher adds, “and we’ll try and work with people to find a solution, whatever that might be in their recovery journey.”

The economic downturn in the oil sands has not helped some people get back on their feet.

“A lot of people didn’t have jobs to come back to, or their homes,” says Brent Davis, Samaritan’s Purse response director said. 

Evelyn Usher has lived in Fort McMurray for seven years. She’s seen the community before and after “The Beast” and says what was once a positive city now has an underlying current of negativity and fear, she says, “there’s always something – someone gets laid off, someone else moves out of town, or another a builder goes bankrupt.”

Residents feel hopeless, and some are having to declare bankruptcy.

The province of Alberta, Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and the Red Cross each committed $2 million in mid-November, 2018 to help finish the rebuilds. One condo complex, completely destroyed by the fire, has seen several delays and a sharp increase in condo fees.

Despite these stumbling blocks, the municipality says they are on track.

“Overall we are where we thought we would be,” Adam Hardiman, spokesperson for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo told Context. But with Fort McMurray being so far north, “our construction season is a little different – different challenges for how quickly you can build something.” 

Hardimand admits in the months following the fire, the city had no where to look for answers on how to begin such a massive rebuild, “When you talk about the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, there is no precedent.”

Hardimand disagrees that there is a negative undercurrent in the community, “there’s no such thing as perfection in recovery and rebuild; but it’s been incredible to see the resilience and strength of the people here. It’s a very resilient community,” he said.

Samaritan’s Purse teamed up with local churches to help rebuild the community.

Brent Davis says, “we’re working with churches as they are feeling the impact of smaller community with greater needs. One church is doing a Youth Lunch because our experience shows youth need to talk about these disasters and need community support.” 

The program was so successful, Fort City church needed to build a bigger kitchen. They continue to host these lunches twice a week.

While local churches and groups like Samaritan’s Purse are active with helping people in the community move forward, Wood Buffalo’s spokesperson, Hardimand says the best way to help Fort Mac is to support pipelines, “we have a resource that’s developed here by workers, working Canadians, it would be beneficial for our economy if we had a pipeline to tidewater.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/DarrenRD

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