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Fire in Fort McMurray: One year later

SaltWire Network file photo
SaltWire Network file photo

Residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., knew their town was in danger in late April 2016. If you managed to avoid the news reports, there was the smell of smoke, and the horizon’s glow to keep you aware.

Still, the call that came May 3 was a shock.

Get out.

In the scramble to reach safety, families were separated and lives thrown into turmoil. Even now, after a year of coping and rebuilding, the impact of the evacuation is fresh and raw. And the stories, good and bad, are still being told.

Here’s how we remember the fire in Fort Mac, one year later.

Nikita Keeping holds daughter Cierra in front of her Fort McMurray home, which miraculously escaped last year’s disastrous wildfire.

Luckier than most

Nikita Keeping was alone, pregnant and scared.

The Port aux Basques woman made a desperate flight from the Fort McMurray inferno, and a full year later the memories still linger, fresh and vivid.

Kristen Green, pictured kneeling on the right, with a few others picking up the pieces in Fort McMurray.

Carbonear native reflects on wildfire one year later

One year after a massive wildfire raged through Fort McMurray, Alta., Kristen Green is still coming to terms with what happened.

"It was surreal," the Carbonear native told The Compass when asked to describe what it was like being in the thick of it. "I think that's the best word to describe it. Parts of it still don't feel real."

In August, Andrew Laite, Courtney Power-Laite, and big sister Lilah, welcome a new baby girl, Brielle, to their lives.

An emotional year of recovery

One of the biggest takeaways from a tragedy like the one in Fort McMurray last year is the understanding that houses can be rebuilt, but lives and trauma take longer to heal.

This is Grand Falls-Windsor native Connie Wasano’s realization of what happened to her cousin and thousands of others who fled Fort McMurray last May after a major fire forced a mass evacuation.

Brad and Debbie Drodge, and Ozzy Bear

Couple looks back

"I remember that day vividly.  I remember every thing about that day," Debbie Drodge told The Packet, as she recalled last year's events.

"I remember the quietness and the eeriness … I remember I said to my husband that I'm not taking any pictures as we drive through Fort McMurray, and we drove through Fort McMurray and we didn’t speak to each other at all.  It was just quiet."

Shawn Kennedy returned to P.E.I. from Fort McMurray after being forced to evacuate with his two-year daughter, Madison, and his six-year-old son, Nolan. They are among hundreds of Islanders living and working in Fort Mac who remain uncertain about their futures with so much damage to the city by the wildfires.

P.E.I. residents in Fort McMurray reflect on wildfire anniversary

Brody MacDonald thinks about the fire in Fort McMurray every time he hears the siren of a fire truck.

“Like everybody else, there are times,’’ MacDonald said when asked if his mind wanders back to that fateful day on May 1, 2016 when a wildfire raged through the Alberta community.

“There are times, even around here (in P.E.I.) where you hear a fire truck go by. It brings back bad memories.’’

Fire retardant was dropped on the fire as people evacuated Fort McMurray in May 2016.

'We had one job: get out safely'

Amid the raging flames, the smoke that blackened the sky, the danger, uncertainty and panic, one of the things that stands out most in the mind of Jordan Tibbo was the kindness.

“People shared gas, gave rides, helped others pack and even picked up friends’ children from school. In gridlocked traffic we were waved ahead by a gentleman as if it was no different than lunchtime rush hour.”

Joan and Mike Donaldson in their new office in Yarmouth.

Forever tied to others because of the fire

“Fort McMurray has been on my mind a lot this past week,” says Mike Donaldson.

“I have reached out, over the past few days, to a few of the people who I had worked closely with throughout the weeks after the fire ... I find my mind returning to some rather intense memories.”

In the spring of 2016 they were part of a team of professionals helping Fort McMurray residents cope with the devastation and loss caused by the fire.  The Donaldsons had spent a couple of years in the Alberta city working as counsellors when the fire happened.

Olivia Little of Fort McMurray still struggles with the memory of the fires last May.

Through the eyes of a 12-year-old

Evacuating her home is something Olivia Little, 12, will never forget. She shared her experience in a letter:

When I woke up on May 3, I looked out the window and it was blue skies. (Later) as I walked into the front entrance of my home, all I could see out the window was grey and orange in the sky.

As a natural reaction, I stared in fear and all I felt is tears rolling down my cheek.

I ran downstairs to my dad’s office and told my stepmom, in horror, what I saw.

While some Fort McMurray residents have returned, others have chosen not to and have their properties for sale.

Back to Fort Mac, but many others didn't return

For nearly a month last spring, Barry and Ivy Perry agonized over what they might find when they finally got the all-clear to return to their Fort McMurray, Alta., home.

Like thousands of others, the rapidly moving fires had forced the Perrys from their home on May 3, 2016. They made it back to their native P.E.I. by May 6 and spent 25 days with family in Tignish.

When they flew back to Alberta on June 1, their property was as they had left it, but it was a bittersweet return.

Jeremy Bailey and fiancée Melissa Price.

Assistance, wherever you looked

Whenever Jeremy Bailey heads out to his patio for a cigarette, he is reminded of the wildfires that ravished Fort McMurray last May.

That’s because the trees just beyond his yard still bear the damage caused by the fire.

That’s how close this story hit home for Bailey.

"Every time I go outside my door, I see that."

Judy Hoots stands near the entrance to her and husband Mike’s new home in Fort McMurray..

Former Stephenville couple would have done things differently

Only five minutes.

That’s how long it took before Mike and Judy Hoots shut off their television last week while a show on the Discovery Channel about the Alberta wildfires was airing.

“We just couldn’t watch it anymore,” she said of the film.

The Hoots lost their mobile home one year ago in the wildfires that ravaged Fort McMurray.

Sara MacKinnon of Westville took these pictures as she fled Fort McMurray.

Former Pictou County resident recalls the Fort Mac fire

Overwhelming.

That’s what it felt like to drive back into Fort McMurray and see the damage that the forest fire caused last year.

“It was a huge shock seeing the devastation and coming to terms with it as the new normal,” said Erika Margeson, a former Pictou County resident who, along with her husband Connor and five-week-old baby, fled the flames. “It took a long time for it to feel like home to us again. It's still a lot to process.”

This week as the country and the city in particular remember the fire, she said it has been odd for everyone living there.

“We talk about the fire every day, we see what it left all around us, but somehow the anniversary is stirring up lots of unsettled feelings,” she said. “I can imagine those who still aren't back in their homes or still fighting to get back to normal are just completely overwhelmed.”

Rebuilding a life

One of the final items Connie Howell claimed before fleeing her smoke-filled Fort McMurray home on May 3, 2016, was a Pittsburg Penguins jersey.

One year later, Howell and her jersey are back in Fort Mac.

“When I looked I saw my Pittsburg Penguins jersey and I jumped the bed and I grabbed it,” said Howell.

“I said ‘you made it through one disaster, you’re going to make it through this.”

The jersey, purchased in 1988, is a symbol of victory to Howell. Not only because the Penguins won the Stanley Cup Champions last year, but for her own personal victory.

“I might have lost my home and lost everything,” said Howell.

“I said ‘I’d just like for the Penguins to win the cup’ and they did.”

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