FORT MCMURRAY — Residents of Fort McMurray marked the first anniversary of the wildfire that destroyed 10 per cent of the city with early-morning yoga classes, picnics by the river, visits with friends or — in some cases — nothing at all.
The fire in northern Alberta ignited deep in the bush on May 1, 2016, and exploded into a ferocious blaze that forced the evacuation of the entire city two days later.
More than 80,000 people fled as towering flames licked at their homes and crackled along the only highway out of the city.
“Everyone needs to do their own thing to mark this day.” said Melissa Blake, mayor of the Wood Buffalo regional municipality that includes Fort McMurray.
Blake said more and more rebuilt homes are springing up with the warm weather, but she cautioned that full recovery will take years.
“If you drive through the neighbourhoods that were most impacted, you’ll find a buzz of activity,” Blake said Wednesday.
“However, these are still the early days of our recovery. We know that it’s going to be a much longer process than any of us would ever want.”
The majority of Fort McMurray was spared, but flames consumed nearly 2,600 dwelling units, which were mostly residential.
The municipality has said that as of April 27, 652 rebuild permits had been approved. Almost three dozen families moved into new homes as of last month.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said it was a day to mourn two young people who died in a highway crash as they fled — Emily Ryan, 15, and Aaron Hodgson, 19.
“We also mourn all that the fire took from people: their homes, their baby photos and all the belongings that helped to anchor so many cherished memories,” she said.
She said people always ask about the oilsands city no matter where she travels.
“People from the U.S. to China to Japan are inspired by you and inspired by the bravery, the strength and the resilience that this community did show and continues to show.”
Fire Chief Jody Butz said he was spending a lot of the day supporting members of the department and reflecting on the outpouring of support they received.
“Me and my family, we’re going to stay low key,” he said. “It’s important that we recognize and remember what was a year ago, but it’s more important that we move on and focus on the positives.”
Brian Jean, member of the legislature for Fort McMurray-Conklin and leader of Alberta’s Opposition Wildrose party, said mental health is a top concern.
“I’m extremely worried about my people and their mental state right now,” he said.
Jean’s home burned and he said rebuilding it has been delayed — first by regulations around flood risk and then by concerns over slope stability.
“We still have 2,000 homes that were destroyed and people have no place to move back to … I’m very concerned about those people.”
Leesa McLeod, who manages community wellness for the municipality’s recovery task force, said some residents wanted to tune out the anniversary, while others wanted to acknowledge it.
Tents were set up in a riverside park where residents could drop in for yoga, painting or dance classes from dawn until dusk. The day was to be bookended with a pancake breakfast and a community barbecue.
“We didn’t want to celebrate the day. That was the wrong term,” said McLeod.
“It’s important to mark the day because tomorrow it starts fresh. It’s almost as though it was New Year’s Eve and tomorrow is a fresh day for us.”
Jessica Hetherington and a friend from work braved the early-morning chill to take part in an outdoor yoga class.
“It did what it was supposed to do. We’re feeling more relaxed now and ready to have this first anniversary.”
Hetherington, who works in human resources, was pregnant with her first child during the fire. Her son Silas is now eight months old.
“With the wildfire and having a baby, it was a year I will absolutely never forget. And he will be told all about it —what he experienced when he was in mommy’s belly.”
Hetherington’s home was not among those destroyed, but she said the memories are still vivid.
“It hasn’t gone away. It’s still almost as strong as it was when we came back in June.”
Firefighter Sam Samson, who dropped by with a group of friends, said it’s been an emotional year.
“Every time you see something on TV with regards to the fire, it kind of brings back memories,” he said.
His wife, Marlene Gould, said the most stressful aspect of the fire was worrying about Samson.
“There were moments I thought I would never see him again,” she said.
“But we got through it. It’s all good. We’re safe. That’s the main thing.”
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press