The future is uncertain for the thousands of people forced by out-of-control wildfires to flee their Fort McMurray homes. Most have nothing to return to.
EDMONTON, Alberta — The passengers arrived through an airport gate normally used as an exit. Some had bulging oversize bags, others nothing more than a shopping bag or backpack. And all around were an unusual number of children, along with dogs and cats of all sizes.
The arrivals at Edmonton International Airport were part of an effort to re-evacuate about 8,000 people who had fled north from Fort McMurray, Alberta, as massive wildfires moved in on the city this week, only to find themselves cut off from the rest of Canada as the blaze spanned the only highway south.
“It’s just surreal, I don’t know what to do,” Lory Curnew told her former neighbor Marlene McDonald as they stood by a baggage carousel. “It’s devastating to say the least.”
The evacuees had taken refuge in work camps normally used by oil-sands workers.
But some of those camps quickly became overcrowded. While their arrival in Edmonton brought them to safety, it only reinforced the uncertainty they now face having fled a city much of which, including many of their homes, has been reduced to ashes.
They had been among the Canadians drawn to Fort McMurray by jobs that paid exceptionally high wages during the oil boom. That beacon dimmed with the global plunge in petroleum prices, but the oil-industry downturn is now the least of their concerns. And although her future is far from clear, Curnew, like many of the evacuees, is already skeptical about promises from politicians that Fort McMurray will rise again.
“For a lot of people, I don’t think they’ll go back,” said Curnew, a single mother who worked in construction and who arrived with a single suitcase, her 15-year-old-son, Parker, and two dogs. “You just can’t go back there with no services, no food coming in, no anything. You just can’t go back there.”
With the wildfires now covering more than 210,000 acres and, as of Thursday afternoon, seizing and scorching still more territory, officials and politicians were dodging questions about Fort McMurray’s future. Yet it is already difficult to foresee that a city of about 90,000 people that struggled with explosive growth earlier in this decade will emerge in the same form. And for the thousands of its residents who have nothing to return to, there is no new Canadian boomtown to replace it.
With flames lapping at the edges of Highway 63, the city’s only land connection to the rest of Canada, the vast majority of the 88,000 evacuees went south in a slow-motion traffic jam in which trips that normally last minutes stretched into hours.
Some drivers, with their cars low on gas and service stations closed, stopped on the side of the road or gave up at nearby communities like Anzac. As the fire expanded and shifted south, they were forced to again pack up and find refuge.
By Thursday, officials believed that most had made their way to Edmonton, the nearest major city, or farther south to Calgary, the home of white-collar oil-industry workers.
About 2,800 people without friends or family in Edmonton ended up registering at the Northlands Exhibition Center, now an emergency shelter, including Justin Dick, 23, who was lured to Fort McMurray three years ago along with his mother and stepfather, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, by hopes of sharing in the oil boom.
Now, Dick said outside the exhibition hall, it looked as if the house where he lived and all their belongings had been consumed.
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“We just wanted to get ahead in life and now we’ve lost everything,” he said.
Though most residents cling to the faint hope that their homes and belongings have survived, some are less optimistic. Asked what she expected to find upon returning to her condominium, Mona Wesala, 27, a Kenyan engineer who works for Suncor, an energy company, slowly shook her head. “Ashes,” she said.
Not all evacuees had flights to safety. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that thousands of cars were lined up behind a blockade north of Fort McMurray on Thursday. As frustration mounted, the broadcaster reported, more than two dozen cars and trucks tried to force their way through police cars acting as barriers but stopped when at least one police officer stood in front of his cruiser.
Curnew went to Fort McMurray from Newfoundland, a province of chronic unemployment, 22 years ago to build a new life. She has no connections or family elsewhere in Alberta, and likely nothing to return to in Fort McMurray. But she hopes to stay in her adopted province.
While she said that she has encountered nothing but kindness since Tuesday, Curnew is disturbed about much of what she sees on social media about her hometown.
“I’ve been reading some of the negative comments on Facebook people, saying, ‘All these materialistic people, they’re getting what they deserve, their crap town is burning,’” she said.
“I started out as a single mom there just renting, worked it up and got a house all myself. I’m not materialistic, I was just there living within my means just trying to raise my son.”