After the Fire - Going Home to Fort McMurray

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fort mcmurray wildfire beacon hill wildfire abasand fire waterways fire horses fort mcmurray animals

By Margaret Evans

On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began some 15 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Unseasonably high temperatures in the low 30 degrees C, low humidity, dry vegetation, and high winds rapidly fueled the fire. By 10 pm, a state of emergency had been declared and the Centennial Trailer Park as well as the neighbourhoods of Prairie Creek and Gregoire were all placed under mandatory evacuation followed rapidly by a mandatory evacuation of the entire city.

Within a few days, the fire had swept through the communities of Beacon Hill, Abasand, and Waterways. On May 4, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo confirmed that those communities had a serious loss of homes. Ultimately, 15 percent of Fort McMurray sustained severe fire damage. The fire forced over 80,000 residents to evacuate and destroyed 2,400 homes and businesses as well as infrastructure such as streets and powerlines. It also impacted Alberta’s oil sand operations. 

However, 85 percent of the city, including the downtown core, is intact. Schools remain standing. The hospital was not damaged but is not yet operating. The expected date for it to be fully functional is June 15.

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The day the population was forced to evacuate Fort McMurray was garbage day, and the smell of the trash left behind has attracted black bears to the fire-damaged city. Wildlife officers have killed two as of May 28 and are trapping and relocating others found roaming in the city.

Officials have given a tentative date of June 1 for residents to be allowed to return to the city. However, that will depend on certain criteria for citizen safety and the provision of essential services. The Alberta Government along with the Regional Municipality of Wood-Buffalo has issued a Re-entry Information Booklet which is a must-read. 

For those owning acreages, rural properties and livestock, here are some tips to prepare you for a safe return home.

THE LANDSCAPE

Returning home to see a profoundly different landscape from the one you left can be very upsetting. Seeing your familiar neighbourhood charred, lifeless and blackened by fire can be extremely hard. It’s not only the sights but the smells that will be emotionally unsettling, especially for children. Be prepared for:

  • Burned out buildings, outbuildings and the remains of vehicles.
  • Areas covered in ash.
  • The smell of burned trees, wood structures, and bush.
  • Familiar landmarks such as street signs, parks, and corner stores gone. 
  • Dead animals. Wildlife and loose dogs and cats would have tried to flee the flames.

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Photo: Canstock/Eppic

PREPARING FOR THE JOURNEY HOME

  • Take all your personal ID including Red Cross registration number, driver’s license, social insurance number, proof of residence in Fort McMurray such as a utility bill, car/truck registration, insurance documents, etc. 
  • Charge your mobile phone before leaving your temporary housing.
  • Keep several flashlights on hand with fresh batteries. 
  • Tell a friend or relative of your plans to return.
  • Wear appropriate clothing – sturdy shoes, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves, hat, N-95 dust masks. You should be able to find the masks in hardware stores or they are free in cleaning kits from Red Cross Information Centres.
  • Pack essential needs to last at least 14 days for all members of your family and your pets – food, drinking water, medications, toiletries, cleaning products including disinfectants, tools and towels, a small fridge (if supplies need freezing) or cooler as your fridge in the house may have been destroyed.
  • Take plenty of pairs of rubber gloves and several packs of garbage bags, large and small.

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PERSONAL NEEDS

  • Keep emergency contact numbers and your emergency kit close by in a portable container that you can grab at a moment’s notice. Review your communication plan with family and friends in case of another emergency.
  • Stay abreast of news reports and updates on safe roads, access to parts of the city, what is open, closed or still under evacuation notice.
  • Carry cash; not all debit machines or ATM machines may be up and running. 
  • Keep any medications in a safe place and under your control. 
  • Restock your emergency kit as soon as you are able so that supplies are on hand when needed again.

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HOUSE AND BARN

  • Find out from authorities if it is safe to enter your specific street and what to do should you discover hot spots, hazardous materials or downed power lines on your property. Hot spots can smolder just below the surface and they could erupt into flame if the ground is disrupted. 
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on hand.
  • If your home and barn are still intact and deemed safe to enter, do so cautiously as there may be unexpected hazards. 
  • Do a complete check of the structure for safety and integrity. Check walls, floors, stairs, wood framing, and roofing. Assess smoke damage, i.e., the number of rooms, furniture, clothing, drapes, etc. 
  • Take photos of the building, contents and damaged areas for insurance purposes.
  • List what needs to be done and what should be checked by an expert. Have the buildings received any water damage from firefighters’ hoses? Did they sustain any fire or ember damage? Is the roof intact from what you can see on the ground? 
  • Are all the local services – power, water, phone, natural gas – up and running? If you are unsure about services to your home and barn, have everything checked by a professional before turning on power.
  • Open the doors to let in fresh air and air out rooms. Control the flow of air if it is windy as you don’t want ash from outside blowing into your house and barn. 
  • If your house or barn has sustained some impact from fire ash, use a mask and dampen debris before cleaning up to minimize breathing dust particles. 
  • Wear rubber gloves and heavily soled shoes or boots to protect hands and feet.
  • Check your deep freeze and discard all food. Do not eat any food that has thawed and re-frozen.
  • Check all food cupboards and discard anything that is unsealed with an open package. Discard any jarred foods as the heat may have compromised the seal. Discard any foods that have come into contact with waste water, chemicals, or water. Discard raw foods (i.e., fruits and vegetables) and any foods in containers on counters and tables.
  • If there are unstable trees in the yard, garden or around the barn, arrange to have them removed. Trees can be weakened by fire yet still stand, only to topple in a later storm. 
  • Temporary transfer stations will be available June 2 at the Franklin Avenue depot, Timberlea depot, Thickwood depot, and Gregoire depot.

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Photo: Canstock/Jonasbsl

PETS

  • On May 7, emergency responders began rescuing pets that were left behind during the evacuation. You may have already filled out the online emergency pet rescue request to allow a field team to respond. Pet owners will be contacted by Alberta SPCA or you can visit the Alberta SPCA website for more information.
  • If a pet reunification team visited your home to retrieve your pet, contact RMWB Animal Control at 780-788-4200. 
  • The return home can be really upsetting for pets. Plan to spend extra time with them and protect them from any hazardous areas. 
  • Following a fire, familiar scents and landmarks may be altered. Pets may become confused or lost so it is critical to maintain close contact with your animals and keep them on a leash or in some kind of safe containment when they need to go outside. 
  • Other potentially hazardous, scared wild animals displaced by the fire may have migrated into the area (especially coyotes) and you will need to pay close attention to small dogs and cats outside. In addition, downed power lines, sewage water, and broken or charred metal and glass can be dangerous pets.  
  • Disaster-related stress may change a pet’s behaviour. Normally quiet and friendly pets may become aggressive or defensive. Watch your animals closely, and be cautious around other animals – even pets you know.

HORSES

Once home, you will need to check your horses as soon as possible. You may have moved them to a friend’s home away from the fire or you may have been forced to open the gates and let them loose. 

  • Horses have a way of staying close to home and they may have found safe grazing not far away. Or they may have been taken in by a local resident. Notify the SPCA if your horse/horses are lost or missing in case they pick up strays. 
  • Isolate any animals returning from evacuation from those that remained with the herd, especially if they were in contact with other animals during evacuation. 
  • Check for cuts, abrasions, signs of ember injury. If your horse needs medical attention, check to see if your local veterinarian’s facilities are functioning. Find out from the SPCA if they have a resource list of mobile vets who may be able to help, even with a phone call. 
  • Watch for diarrhea or pneumonia or upper respiratory infection and take appropriate action. 
  • If pasture has been scorched, you may need to source alternative grazing from a friend or acquaintance who may have grazing in areas untouched by the fire.
  • Contact the Alberta Equestrian Federation. They have been compiling a list of individuals and businesses that are willing to take in horses needing pasture or stabling. They also have other resources that may help with feed and transportation. Call 403-253-4411 ext. 7 or toll-free: 1-877-463-6233 ext. 7.

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Photo: Canstock/Mariait

BARN, PASTURE AND FENCING

  • If safe to do so, check all the fencing to see what needs repairing/replacing. 
  • Check water supply. The water trough will need scrubbing and refilling.
  • Check the pasture for hot spots, debris that may have been dropped by the fire, or smoldering embers that may lie beneath the surface.

WATER

  • Currently, there is a boil water advisory for Fort McMurray including Anzac, Conklin, Gregoire Lake Provincial Park, Janvier and nearby work camps that pull water from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Water Treatment Plant.
  • All residents and businesses are advised to bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute prior to any consumption including drinking, brushing teeth, cleaning raw foods, preparing infant formula or juices, or making ice. Water used for bathing or washing clothes does not need to be boiled. For hand-washing, use soap and water and an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing more than 60 percent alcohol after drying your hands.

FAMILY HEALTH AND STATE OF MIND

People often find themselves going back over the experience, thinking about it, trying to put some sense and order to the events, and working out what happened and why. It is natural to try to understand what happened, but try not to stress about things that are outside your control.

It is perfectly normal for people to have many mixed emotions when going home. It will have already been upsetting to see all the devastating images in the media but nothing really prepares you for the sights and smells on your return home. But what is important is that the majority of Fort McMurray is intact and that authorities are working hard to get services up and running properly. 

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Photo: ThinkstockStockbyte

Meanwhile, here are some tips to help you and your family:

  • Be sure that your family members have had up-to-date tetanus shots.
  • Enjoy the relief you will feel at actually coming home. It’s the first start to putting your life back in order and it is an opportunity to plan for the future.
  • While you will feel distress for what was lost, enjoy the optimism for what survived.
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed, worried about the return of wildfires in the coming summer months, and anxiety about getting through all that must be done are natural. Take your time, take short breaks, and connect with friends, neighbours and relatives. Plan down time to get together so you can talk things through, share stories, bounce around new ideas. 
  • Pay close attention to your children. They are especially vulnerable to radical, dangerous changes in their lives. Be aware of changes in behaviour, withdrawal, being unusually quiet, or not wanting to talk. Be patient, encouraging and look for a variety of activities to keep them involved. Be ready to seek professional help if necessary and don’t delay the decision. 
  • Get involved in your community, offer help even if it’s just talking to other people for a few minutes. Let them know they are not alone. A sense of togetherness can be very therapeutic. 
  • If you or a member of your family is having a particularly difficult time, contact the Mental Health Line at 1-877-303-2642 or Health Link at 811. 

Remember, all these feeling and reactions are normal. The fire has gone; what lies ahead is a new life with renewed hope. 

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Photo: Shutterstock/Chris Hellyer

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