Rebuilding Fort McMurray in mind, body & spirit
New homes are going up in Fort McMurray’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood
One year after covering the Fort McMurray wildfire, cameraman Richard Blais and I returned to the region, to see how people are faring.
And while Fort McMurray looks very different than it did in May 2016, one things remains the same. People are very willing to share their stories, while remaining optimistic about the future, despite many challenges.
When you approach Fort McMurray from the south on Highway 63, you see a few burned trees. Then bigger sections of forest with blackened tree trunks.
When you enter the city's neighbourhoods, with names Canadians became familiar with during the fire - Beacon Hill, Abasand, Timberlea - the burned trees are still there too. But aside from a few homes with melted siding not yet replaced, the torched forest is the only visible sign there was a disaster.
The scenes of grey ashes and exposed basement foundations that people found when they were first able to return are gone.
All the concrete from the basements has been hauled away, and is piled high at the landfill, south of Fort McMurray.
In their place, new basements are being dug, and many new homes are under construction. Beacon Hill and Abasand could be mistaken for any new neighbourhood being built on the outskirts of Calgary or Edmonton.
Trevor Roswell, who lost his home in the Stone Creek section of Timberlea, is moving into his new place this month, after what he calls a good experience dealing with his insurance company.
"The excitement's starting to kick in about getting home and getting back to a normal lifestyle," he told us.
Helen Corre Zara is settling back into a normal life, too. The housekeeping supervisor at downtown Fort McMurray's Nomad Hotel says she felt alone and scared when she was forced to leave the city on May 3, 2016.
But she has nothing but good memories from her time in Calgary, her temporary home during the evacuation.
The fire was nicknamed The Beast, but Zara calls her story "The Beauty & The Beast" - the beauty being the compassion and support shown by Calgarians to her and her fellow evacuees.
"I've grown a lot, so much, that's why I called it the beauty of the wildfire. That helped me. It's just so much positivity."
But not everyone is adjusting so well one year after the blaze.
One contractor, who says he will probably have steady work rebuilding homes for at least two years in Fort McMurray, told me his wife left him because she became depressed while enduring the stress of returning to the city.
Tia Mackenzie, who escaped with her husband and two girls, is now living with her parents in Beaumont, south of Edmonton. She doesn't plan to uproot her kids and move them back. Mackenzie's home survived, but all their contents were smoke-damaged. She says living in limbo while waiting for an insurance settlement has been difficult.
"I had a full blown panic attack in March, completely different from an anxiety attack, so you never realize your stress can actually reach those kind of levels until it happens to you," says Mackenzie.
Yet Mackenzie has nothing bad to say about the northern community, whose population has fallen about 14 percent since the fire, according to city officials.
"Even though some of us have decided not to come back, our hearts still support Fort McMurray," she says.
Two weeks after returning to Calgary, I came across Fort McMurray Tourism CEO Frank Creasey at the Rendez-vous Canada tourism conference in Calgary. He was among hundreds of people from across Canada at the event trying to boost tourism in their communities.
Creasey's main selling point is the long northern lights season. But he often has to assure tourism companies from around the world that Fort McMurray can host them.
"The answers are to be truthful. Was there infrastructure impact? Most certainly. Will it come back? Most definitely." says Creasey.
"The boreal forest is a backdrop for a lot, if not all, of our product. We had green grass in May of last year, that's a positive. Trees will come back."
It seems like the trees aren't the only things that will come back. A positive outlook on life, shared with us by many who live there, is already on the rise.