Sunday, June 12, 2016

MY RECOLLECTIONS OF FORT MAC

The last and only time I had the opportunity to visit Fort MacMurray was in the summer of 1969. My then brother-in-law was working as an electrician for Suncor and Dad, Mom and their three youngest children made the long nasty trek for a week-long visit with my sister and her husband. At that time the community was relatively small and isolated and it was just about to explode with development.
            That was nearly fifty years ago so things have changed dramatically in the Fort MacMurray region since then. I don’t remember too many exact details but I do remember that the road to Fort MacMurray wasn't even paved and one had to have a most reliable vehicle with extra gas on hand as the road was rough and there was only one gas bowser between the last town and Fort MacMurray.
            I remember the beauty of the area with the Athabasca River flowing through the town and the Boreal forest surrounding it. There wasn’t even a cement swimming pool in the community as the natural waterways along the town site provided plenty of aquatic opportunities with a massive swimming hole being the centre of the summer recreation facilities. Many of the residential areas had yet to receive paved streets or curbs and gutters. That was to come.
            The population had gone from 926 residents in 1951 to 6847 in 1971 to 31,000 by 1981 reaching 62,000 by 2011. Oil exploration in the area had started early in the 20th Century and by 1921 there was serious interest in developing a process to remove the oil from the oil sands. The first extraction processes were very slow but by the start of World War II the output had grown to 1100 barrels of oil per day. In 1967, the Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) plant opened which really kicked off Fort MacMurray’s growth. There were only 2000 residents in 1967 and the population more than tripled before the end of the 1960’s decade.
            On May 1st, only a week ago as of this writing, a wildfire started southwest of Fort MacMurray and within a few days 88,000 people had been evacuated and 1600 homes and buildings had been destroyed.                 The devastation was so rapid and fierce many residents escaped with only the clothes on their backs. Considering the massive size of the evacuation and the apocalyptic conditions that residents had to escape through, there were very few casualties.
On the other hand, the worst disasters seem to bring out the best in humans. As of Friday May 6th the Red Cross had collected over 30 million dollars in donations for the relief effort. Clothing, water, food, medications, bedding and many, many other items have been donated as well. The collection center in Edmonton was so overwhelmed with donations that they had to source more storage. If you’d like to donate go to redcross.ca.
There are heartwarming stories and heartbreaking stories. There are stories of survival, sacrifice and inspiration. I viewed an aerial video of the devastation which shows some residential areas completely wiped out while others remained untouched reminding us all how fickle natural disasters can be and leaving many evacuees to ask, “why me” or “why not me” in some cases.
There are some iconic photos from the area already like the woman riding her horse while leading two of her other horses to safety down a major City Street through the smoke and sparks. There are hundreds of pictures from cars driving through the only escape route through thick smoke with the flames from the fire seemingly about to melt the sides of the vehicles as they drove down Hwy #63 scared that they might not get through. Words like surreal, incredible, horrible, frightening, awestruck and sickening were heard from evacuees once they reached safety.         
Once again humanity is humbled by nature. The devastation will be felt for decades. It is a terrible reminder that life can turn on a dime and with very little warning lives are permanently changed. It is also another reminder to appreciate every single day because one never knows when one’s life can be turned upside down in a matter of minutes.

   “While natural disasters capture headlines and national attention short-term, the work of recovery and rebuilding is long-term”.-Sylvia Matthews Burwell. (1965-).

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