Fort McMurray picks up the pieces

Despite the devastation, Alberta town in better shape than was originally feared
Burned homes lie in the foreground while others remain untouched in Beacon Hill, Fort McMurray, Alberta, on Monday, May 9, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

The forest fire that tore through Fort McMurray for most of last week has moved on. In its wake, there is much devastation as thousands of homes have been burned to the ground and lost. But there are also many reasons to be grateful as the tireless dedication and bravery of firefighters has left much of the city intact.

When the fire was at its most menacing and dangerous, Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen initially feared that around "40 and 50 per cent" of the city would be lost to the flames. Instead, around 90 per cent of the city is still standing. This includes according to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley "the hospital, municipal buildings, and every functioning school."

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (left) shakes hands with Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen. (Getty Images embed)

Tough choices

Of course, 10 per cent of a city is still a lot. Around 2,500 homes and buildings were completely destroyed. In particular, the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill (which was one of the closest to the fire) lost 70 per cent of its homes. As Chief Allen explained, this was a necessary decision by the firefighters. They had to make the tough choice to abandon places like Beacon Hill to make stronger stands against the fire elsewhere in the city.

"At [the time that the fire first hit the city] we [firefighters] were depleted by manpower, we were depleted by water shortage," Allen said. "And we made a decision early to retreat and start in again where we could fight the fight."

This is a pretty good example of what was at stake for those fighting such a massive blaze. Making the choice to regroup and strategically defend different areas in town probably saved most of Fort McMurray. Keeping the heart of the city intact — the hospital that cares for its sick and injured, the schools that educate its children — means that it will be much easier for the city to rebuild. In addition, they were able to evacuate and save nearly every resident. As horrible as it was, it could have been far worse.

"I truly believe nothing else could have been done that wasn't done to protect the people and the structures within our city," Allen said. "If that fire had got down into the downtown, we would have lost the downtown."

Small steps toward rebuilding

But especially for families who lost their entire home, rebuilding is going to be a long, hard journey. Premier Notley reminded everyone that there are "weeks of work ahead" before people can move back. Even though many buildings are intact, much of the city is without water, gas, or electricity.

Donations of shoes in Lac la Biche, Alberta, a community that is helping provide shelter to evacuees from Fort McMurray. (Getty Images embed)

Fortunately, the kindness and generosity of Canadians coast to coast has been felt quickly. Nearby communities have all opened their homes and towns to evacuees. Donations of money, food, clothing, and goods have poured in to Alberta — in most cases, they have more than they need. And the fire, though still massive and covering over 200,000 hectares, is growing much more slowly now and far from other communities. Within a few days, nearly 1000 firefighters will be working to contain and eventually extinguish this inferno.

Lessons and the future

Experts all agree that a fire like this changes everything we know about wildfires. How they move, how they grow, and how to stop them. Fort McMurray is a long way from being back on its feet. But not only do tragedies like this bring communities together, they also help people learn how to be safer in the future. Many believe that Canada can take the lessons learned here to better protect all cities and towns that are surrounded by forests.

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