FORT MCMURRAY — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley returned to Fort McMurray a year after a fierce wildfire destroyed 10 per cent of the city and told its leaders and residents that the province still has their backs.
Notley said it’s sad to remember all that was taken from people — everything from their homes to their cherished belongings.
But she also said Fort McMurray residents have shown their resiliency and will continue to do so as the recovery moves ahead.
She said people always ask about the northern Alberta 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,” she said Wednesday.
“We said we’d be with you on the journey. We know the journey is not over. We are still with you.”
The fire started 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. It was dubbed “The Beast” because it was so fierce and unpredictable.
More than 80,000 people fled as towering flames licked at their homes and crackled along the highway used by thousands to leave the city.
Melissa Blake, mayor of the Wood Buffalo regional municipality that includes Fort McMurray, said the city is bouncing back and more and more rebuilt homes will spring up as the building season ramps up.
But she cautioned that full recovery will take years.
“It’s clear that we’ve made significant progress. If you drive through the neighbourhoods that were most impacted, you’ll find a buzz of activity,” Blake said.
“It is encouraging to see. 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.”
Activities such as yoga, pancakes and visits with friends were taking place in a riverfront park to mark the one-year anniversary. The low-key event — that also included dance, art, acupuncture and meditation — started at dawn on Wednesday and was to run until dusk.
Jessica Hetherington and a friend from work braved the early-morning chill Wednesday to take part in an outdoor yoga class.
Hetherington, 34, said she wanted to start a tough day off on a positive note.
“It did what it was supposed to do and I think we’re feeling more relaxed now and ready to have this first anniversary of May 3.”
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 by the fire, 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,” she said. ”Everybody is still talking about it. It’s affected every single one of us in very different ways. The entire year has been very surreal.”
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.
“That was a big weight on me. 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.”
Ian Seggie, who operates heavy equipment at an oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray, said he and his family were planning to treat Wednesday like any other day.
“I know within our family, it’s going to be business as usual,” he said recently. ”A lot of people aren’t talking about it … I think a lot of people want to move on and look forward.”
He said the memory is still fresh.
“You hear a helicopter buzzing overhead, or sirens, you immediately perk right up.”
The majority of Fort McMurray was spared, but the flames consumed about 1,600 structures. That amounted to nearly 2,600 dwelling units, which were mostly residential.
The municipality has said that as of April 27, 652 rebuild permits have been approved. Almost three dozen families moved into new homes last month.
Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press