From the ashes: Fort McMurray people share stories seven months after the fire

By The Canadian Press
December 20, 2016 - 7:15am

It's been more than seven months since a massive wildfire swept through the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray, displacing more than 80,000 people and destroying more than 2,400 homes and businesses. The fire has been selected by senior editors as Canada's news story of the year for 2016. As part of its ongoing coverage of the disaster, The Canadian Press has checked back with several people who lived through the fire to see what life has been like since.

WEARING DOWN

When asked how he is doing, Farid El-Hayouni sighs.

"The beast" consumed the house he shared with his wife, three sons and parents, as well as many other homes in Fort McMurray's Stone Creek neighbourhood.

"You know, you think to yourself you are strong," says El-Hayouni, 34, who works as an engineer at the Syncrude oilsands mine north of the city.

"You try your best to really not show it, but sometimes it does have a huge impact on you."

Since returning in September, El-Hayouni has rented a house about a two-minute drive from the charred pit where his family's home used to stand.

He, his wife, Ibtissam Saidi, and one-year-old son Wassim share one bedroom. His two older sons — Sohaib, 9, and Sofian, 7 — are in another. His mother and ailing father take up the third.

A month-long vacation last summer to Morocco, where he was born and where many relatives still live, gave El-Hayouni a welcome respite.

But now the responsibility of providing for his family weighs on him heavily.

"I know there is a lot of help out there, but it does not come and look for you."

It's been a struggle to make ends meet every month. He pays $3,200 in rent every month and still makes $2,400 mortgage payments on a house that's no longer standing. The relentless back-and-forth with his insurance provider has been draining.

"Most of the time I don't even want to have a talk about the house," he says. "It hits that soft tissue in the heart and it bothers me."

El-Hayouni hopes to have his home rebuilt by this time next year, but he's not sure whether he still wants to live at 367 Prospect Dr. or sell the property and find something in a different neighbourhood.

"Life could rewind itself again."

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PACKING UP

Henry Velasquez is preparing to say goodbye to a city that he loves.

Fort McMurray is the only Canadian home he's known since he moved from Colombia six years ago.

"This is the place that gave me the best gift in my life," says the 40-year-old chemical engineer. "That is my son. My son was born here.

"We've always been really proud of that, of being in this place."

Velasquez, his wife, Olga, and four-year-old son Tomas have been living in a rented two-bedroom apartment not far from the rubble of the townhouse they called home.

But life since their return in September has taken an emotional toll.

Velasquez found himself driving by his destroyed home regularly to check on its rebuilding.

"My wife told me, 'Don't do that. You're killing yourself,'" he says. "So I stopped doing that."

Relief from $2,500 monthly mortgage payments on his destroyed property is coming to an end, and the prospect of having to balance those with his monthly rent of $2,000 has been causing a lot of stress.

The Velasquez family are planning to move in March to Sherwood Park, near Edmonton, where his employer has lined up a new job for him.

It means more of a financial squeeze until he is able to sell his home in Fort McMurray.

"But my family and their mental health is more important than anything."

Before the fire, Velasquez and his wife had been thinking about adding to their family, but the fire put those plans on hold.

Now, there's some renewed hope.

"Once we have any certainty about what is going to happen, definitely we are going to try to have another child," he says.

"I don't want another child with nothing in my hands."

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BUILDING AGAIN

Mark Stephenson has been spending a lot of time poring over blueprints.

The 43-year-old firefighter watched helplessly as flames engulfed his house in Fort McMurray's Abasand neighbourhood before he moved on to protecting others. 

While still in the thick of the battle, Stephenson vowed he would rebuild in the same spot.

Seven months later he's following through, trying to settle on a floor plan that fits his family's budget.

"That's still my little piece of Fort McMurray up there," he says.

He's optimistic that by the end of 2017, he and his wife and young kids will be back home.

His daughter Marley, 3, is too young to understand what happened. Five-year-old Jake has gradually come to grips with it.

"For the first little while, he was playing 'fire.' Playing with his dinosaurs or whatever, they all had to put out the fire. His Transformers were all firefighting Transformers."

Those games have subsided.

"He's a pretty tough little kid."

They family is renting a nice place in Timberlea, on the other end of town from Abasand.

"They're decent townhomes, but they're not our own homes," he says. "They're not what we built and paid for. They're not our dreams."

Stephenson is off work for the time being. Trace elements from the fire are still showing up in his blood work. He's off duty until he gets a clean bill of health.

His energy level is low, but he's trying his best to eat well, exercise regularly and keep stress away. He finds being outdoors — hunting and fishing — helps.

"It's hard for firefighters to deal with stuff like that, because we're the helpers. We don't look for help.

"There's this kind of frustration with us all, too, that we shouldn't be feeling this way. And it's all just a big farce because we're men and women just like any other community and any other occupation."

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STRONGER TIES

Jada Polem's family was one of the lucky ones.

Their home was left unscathed by fire and they have managed to ease back into normal life.

Still, the 16-year-old notices differences in the people who returned to her city.

"It feels a lot different," she says. "Before, it was just people lived in Fort Mac. But now it's like you see yourself as a community."

Jada's flight from the flames was viewed by many around the world.

As the wind-whipped fire encroached on her home, she faced a dilemma. She had three horses to shuttle out of harm's way and room for only two in her family's trailer.

While her father hauled two of the horses away, Jada hopped on Mya, the oldest of her mares, and got moving.

It was so hot, the horse had to be hosed down along the way.

It wasn't long before photos of the teen riding the light brown horse alongside bumper-to-bumper traffic went viral.

After about three hours of riding, Jada got to a safe place off Highway 63. She and the horse were picked up in the middle of the night.

Jada and her horses were separated over the summer — she was in Newfoundland and the animals remained outside Edmonton.

The animals were a bit on edge after they returned in September.

"They were just spooking if they heard a weird noise," says Jada.

"Or if they were out in the field, they were just more high strung than they usually were ... They're settled in now and back into their normal routine."

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PAINTING AWAY PAIN

The reds, oranges and yellows that dominated artist Liana Wheeldon's palette in the fire's aftermath are giving way to cooler, calmer hues.

The 48-year-old painter, who also runs Pawfessional Pet Sitting with her husband Ron Kirsch, returned to Fort McMurray in the summer, but not to their smoke-damaged condominium in the Abasand neighbourhood.

They've been renting an apartment in the north-end neighbourhood of Timberlea and hope to be home by the end of the year.

The blaze dubbed "the beast" inspired paintings that show animals, trees, water bombers and firefighters rendered in stark black against fiery backdrops.

"They almost have that '50s advertisement kind of feel to it — very bold colours, simple lines," says Wheeldon.

The memories of her escape remain vibrant in her mind: The wall of flames devouring the south end of Abasand, the sky's transformation from grey to orange and the melted lipstick she found in her purse when she arrived safe in Edmonton after an 18-hour drive.

Wheeldon says painting is helping her work through the trauma and vivid dreams about the evacuation.

"I'm not one to talk about my feelings, but to express it through my art makes sense to me, is helpful to me."

Now, she says, her work is focusing more on images of renewal and hope.

Wheeldon, who works with Arts Council Wood Buffalo, says she's fortunate she still has a workspace and that her artwork survived the fire, which was not the case for other Fort McMurray artists.

Wheeldon is preparing for a bittersweet return to her neighbourhood, which sits on a hill in a singed forest overlooking downtown.

"I'm looking forward to returning home to Abasand even though it's hard to see just wide-open spaces where my friends, neighbours and clients were," she says.

"The rebuilding, renewal and regrowth will happen, and Fort McMurray always has kind of a pioneer spirit, so adapting to change isn't going to break the community, for sure."

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Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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