Speaking in Fort McMurray one year after the wildfire forced a massive evacuation, Alberta’s premier called Wednesday “a sombre anniversary” while the region’s mayor said it was also a time to “reflect on the remarkable experiences of the past year.”
Community events were quiet and respectful — something the region’s officials heard was how residents wanted to mark the day.
“When you have a milestone event like this one, the importance of recounting the progress that’s actually being made is helpful in some people’s recovery, ignoring the date entirely for some people who just don’t want to face it as a reminder is another thing that’s important to respect,” Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said. “So, the low-key events that we have staged down at MacDonald Island are supportive of the desires of the community.
“To offer these different things, whether it’s spiritual or cultural or artistic or yoga at five in the morning… Everybody needs to do their own thing to mark this day.”
Premier Rachel Notley also noted the day was one to mourn the loss of two young people killed in a crash on Highway 881, fleeing the fires: Emily Ryan, 15, and Aaron Hodgson, 19.
“We also remember all that the fire took from people: their homes, their baby photos and all the cherished belongings that helped to anchor so many cherished memories.”
Watch below: Premier Rachel Notley marks 1 year since Fort McMurray wildfire: ‘This is a very difficult day’
“This is also an opportunity to extend our gratitude to our brave emergency responders, whether they were from Alberta or came to help from beyond our borders.”
The premier said everywhere she goes, she is asked about Fort McMurray.
“Everywhere, the sentiment is the same… Your province is very, very proud of you. People from the U.S. to China to Japan are inspired by the bravery, strength and resilience this community did show and continues to show.
“Albertans have long known the people of Fort McMurray are as caring and resilient as they come,” Notley said. “The evacuation proved that to the world.”
Blake also spoke about how overwhelmed she was by the support of Canadians, through the Red Cross, to help people that were complete strangers.
“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” the mayor said.
“To all the Canadians from coast to coast to coast who opened their hearts and homes to us, we will forever be in your debt. During the darkest time in our history, these overwhelming acts of kindness and compassion sustained us.”
“Strangers housed us, fed us, clothed us, even filled our tanks with gas… Our entire community has been personally touched.”
Watch below: Mayor Melissa Blake marks 1 year since Fort McMurray wildfire
Roughly 20 per cent of the community has decided not to return to Fort McMurray since the fire. However, Notley said the school population showed a 94 per cent retention rate as of September.
When asked about calls for another access route out of the city, the premier said the transportation ministry was working with the municipality on possible options. The Alberta government has already dedicated $5 million towards a feasibility study, with the municipality also putting in $5 million.
“That’s the first step,” Notley said, adding she anticipates the study will begin “very soon.”
Notley and Blake were joined by several emergency officials, including the municipality’s new fire chief, RCMP supervisor, and members of the Recovery Task Force.
Both speakers stressed the importance of reaching out for help processing emotions and grief in the wake of the disaster.
“I’ve spoken to many residents who are dreading this day,” Blake said. “Others will want to mark it privately.
“Mental health matters and it is OK to reach out.”
Notley and Blake reiterated that progress is being made but there is still a long road ahead.
“Yes we have come a long way and it’s encouraging to see,” Blake said. “But it’s still early days.”
“We know the journey is not over,” Notley added. “We are still with you.
“Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray, you are strong.”
Watch below: Fort McMurray wildfire one year later: hear from residents and the premier
Nolan Haukeness, a Fort McMurray resident, is at the commemoration at the park and says it has been filled with hugs and re-connections with friends and neighbours.
“It is good to be around people that maybe need to heal and I think we all need to heal a little bit,” explained Haukeness. “For some people, they want to be in a situation like this and I’m glad it is there for them, for the people who want to talk and want to reflect, it is a good opportunity to do that and I’m glad the city has made that available to people.”
He adds it is nice to see everyone thanking those who helped with the evacuation and wildfire.
“I’ve seen people here today I haven’t seen since May 3rd of last year,” explained Haukeness. “Everybody has been very busy since they’ve been back dealing with different things and it is good to see that and it is good to see happy, smiling faces.”
He adds it is hard to move on a year later as they still fight battles with contractors, insurance and their own wellness.
Haukeness says his family hasn’t yet rebuilt their home in Fort McMurray.
Meanwhile, Maria Chong, a resident of Fort McMurray, is taking today to thank everyone all those who helped her family during the evacuation a year ago.
“Williams Energy, the company I work with, because they kept me working and that gave me a sense of normalcy,” explained Chong. “I never stopped working and when I arrived in Calgary, they asked me to go to their office so I just continued working, I got on my computer and continued doing everyday work.”
She added, being able to continue working really helped her get through the tough times.
“You can’t imagine how much I appreciated it and how much I loved being at work,” explained Chong. “Being at work was the most I love from everything else.”
Chong says she’s also grateful for Hidden Valley School, where he daughter used to go, because they her they gave her hot lunch, a backpack and many other items.
She explained her apartment didn’t burn down but there was smoke damage.
“Everything is okay but work is less now, it has been cut, but it is good, I’ve been working,” explained Chong. “We never went back to our place and all of our things are still packed from one-year ago.”
With files from 630 CHED / iNews880