Photographer: Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

Fort McMurray Destruction Sinks In as Evacuees Long for Return

  • Some expect weeks before going back to standing homes or ashes
  • Concerns of escaped include education solutions for children

As a power lineman typically called in to rebuild communities after natural disasters, Robert Bolton isn’t accustomed to being the one fleeing a catastrophe. Now, the evacuee from fires that razed Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’s oil sands longs to go back.

Robert and Lisa Bolton
Robert and Lisa Bolton
Photographer: Rebecca Penty/Bloomberg

It may be awhile, though, before Bolton, 49, his family and more than 80,000 others who evacuated can return home. It’s sinking in for the escapees that even as they wait for the fire to burn out, securing the oil town in the aftermath will also take time. Most cite the experience of Slave Lake, another northern Alberta community ripped apart by wildfire in 2011, where residents weren’t able to return for a couple weeks once the crisis had ended.

“I’ve been through three hurricanes and two ice storms,” Bolton said Friday, speaking at an evacuation center in Plamondon, Alberta, about a two-hour drive south of Fort McMurray. “I’m used to being on the front lines, helping, and the hardest part for me is I’m here with my family because we were displaced.”

The wildfire that began tearing through the community known as Fort Mac on Tuesday continues to burn and its path of destruction has widened to 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles), officials said Friday. While a swath of northern Alberta larger than New York City is under siege, its residents and the communities taking them in are trying to bring bits of normalcy to their lives while they wait to re-establish themselves at home.

Long Wait

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters in a briefing Friday morning that it will be a “significant amount of time” before residents of Fort McMurray can return.

Fort McMurray fire
Fort McMurray fire
Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg

“Firefighters continue to battle a very dangerous wildfire,” she said the prior day in an evening briefing. “Once that immediate threat is passed, we will still need to spend as much time as it takes to assess the infrastructure that is vital to support a community safely.”

Bolton fled Tuesday and has been staying since then in his camping trailer with his wife Lisa, 48, and their kids in Plamondon. He calls his family lucky -- their house is still standing -- and he wants to help others get back on their feet.

For Lisa, the discovery of donated fleece blankets their kids would love, “to make it feel like home,” brings a smile to her face even as tears come and go. She hopes to find a local Catholic church to honor her recently deceased mother-in-law this Sunday, on Mother’s Day. They also may enroll their children in a local school to keep them busy, she said.

Volunteer Efforts

In the evacuation center Friday morning, an army of volunteers is serving French toast for breakfast. There are tables of donated clothes organized by size, racks of jackets and lines of footwear, even cowboy boots.

More than 7,000 people have cycled through the village of about 200 people for clothing, gasoline, naps, showers and meals, and about 200 of those have stayed as temporary residents, according to Claude Lamoureux, a volunteer organizer. Local schools have canceled classes to put up evacuees.

“We also give hugs,” Lamoureux said. “It’s been non-stop for the last four days.”

Terry and Perry Brown
Terry and Perry Brown
Photographer: Rebecca Penty/Bloomberg

Terry Brown’s eyes well up with tears when she talks about the generosity of strangers during such a chaotic time. She and her husband Perry are staying in their trailer at a park in Plamondon and stopped into the evacuation center for a bite. A day earlier, a No Name transport truck full of fresh food -- Terry remembers the delicious strawberries -- stopped by the park to feed those camped out, including their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Still Standing

The Browns’ home in the neighborhood of Thickwood in Fort McMurray is still standing, but they expect it will take at least two weeks before they can return, and even then, there’s the question of what they’re returning to. Terry, a house cleaner, knows many of her clients lost their homes. They’re expecting the rebuild to happen, though it will take time.

“We don’t know what to expect when we get back,” she said.

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