Jenny Howe, Fort McMurray expat, watches childhood memories go up in flames

CBC Calgary's Jenny Howe is a self-described 'McMurrayite.' This is her essay on what it's like to watch your hometown burn.

CBC Calgary reporter and 'McMurrayite' on watching her hometown burn

Residents watch helplessly as entire communities burn to the ground. (Marshall Whitsed)

"DUDE! How's the air out there?"

That's the text I sent my sister, Erin Keca, in Fort McMurray on Monday afternoon.

She told me the ashes were falling like snowflakes, but assured me she was fine. The fire, after all, was on the other side of the city in Gregoire.

Fast forward 24 hours. She texted me a picture of her husband spraying down the roof before they headed out of Fort McMurray on mandatory evacuation. Erin put on a calm demeanour for the sake of her three children aged 12, 10, and 8.

I, on the other hand, was freaking out. Panicking that my family was stuck in a city being infiltrated by flames. 

Arsenault Crescent in Abasand, the Fort McMurray neighbourhood that Jenny Howe and her family lived in before moving to Beacon Hill. Both communities were ravaged by wildfires this week. (Submitted)

About an hour after my sister was ordered to evacuate, I got a call from my mom.

"Jocelyn's house is gone, Jenny. It's gone!"

And with that news, I broke down.

Jocelyn is one of my mom's closest friends in Fort McMurray. Hearing that her Beacon Hill house was swallowed up by flames meant that our house, eight doors down, was surely gone, too.

I say 'our' house, because I haven't been able to call it anything but that since my parents moved out of Fort McMurray in November 2014. But it is the house my family has lived in since 1988.

And the house I didn't leave until 2004. And the house that remained my home even after I moved to Calgary — 212 Beaverglen Close was the heart of our family for so many years.

Jenny Howe's childhood home in Beacon Hill is unlikely to be still standing. (Barbara Howe)

When the images and reports of the devastation started to inundate social media, I started messaging my hometown friends — friends currently living there, but also others, like me, who had since moved. Other 'expats'. 

My Fort McMurray roots run deep.

My family made the trek to the remote, northern Alberta town in 1978. Like so many others, my parents moved us from the East Coast so dad could work in the oilsands.

That was the trend through the 70s and 80s. And it meant there was no shortage of kids. Every neighbourhood was teeming with them.

In those days, nobody ever left Fort McMurray. When you started school in grade 1 with somebody, chances are you'd be with them until grade 12. Even after graduation, the odds that you'd go to the University of Alberta with them were pretty good.

For us, Fort McMurray wasn't just a place to live — it was home. And a home we've always been proud of. There is an undeniable pride when you ask a McMurrayite where they're from. We will never shrink away or whisper, "Fort McMurray...". Oh no. It's more like a resounding "Fort McMurray, baby!"

Jenny Howe (far right) and her family in 1993, when they all lived in Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jenny Howe)

So when we expats started to see images of our homes going up in flames, we started to feel the devastation immediately.

The first expat I heard from was my friend Shelley MacGregor. Shelley and I became friends when we were in grade 10, back in 1990 and have remained very close for the last 26 years. 

"I just saw all the updated stuff about Ft Mac & am now crying. I guess I still care about that place more than I thought," Shelley texted at 4:03 p.m. Tuesday.

Our communication since then has been non-stop — talking about our home and our memories, remembering when the mall was being built, getting the first, and for many years, only McDonald's, swimming at Centennial Pool, spending our summers outside riding bikes and playing in the forest that surrounded our city.

There was one winter night in high school when Shelley and I, along with three friends, ventured out onto the frozen Hangingstone River to try and find the wolf pack that had been spotted on the Athabasca. We howled and waited. The refrain that was echoed back to us was so terrifying that we scrambled to safety in Shelley's home in Grayling Terrace.

Our hometown isn't just about geography, it's about the amazing community — a community that will humour your ridiculous notions of doing things like trying to find a wolf pack. That's what Fort McMurray means to us.    

Erin Keca's husband trying to keep the roof wet on Tuesday. (Erin Keca)

The next text I got on that Tuesday afternoon was from my friend Erin Perry — another former McMurrayite who I've been friends with for decades.

"Jenny, is Tam going to make it?"

Tammy Cook-McMillan is our best friend who still lives in Fort McMurray. Tammy and her family were stuck in gridlock as tens of thousands of people tried to flee the fire.

Like so many people I went to school with, Tammy threatened to leave the city for years, but just couldn't. The pull of Fort Mac, once you've been there, is incredibly strong.

Many of us expats had decided to leave The Mac for good, only to return. I left after high school for four years of university and travel. And then I went back. Determined to leave once and for all, I moved to England of all places. After six months, I came back. That's where I stayed for another five years.

Even though I was working at Shell's Albian Sands plant site, doing 12 hour shifts, complete with a 75-minute bus ride there and back, I still loved being in Fort McMurray.

Over the past couple of days, social media — the double-edged sword that it is — has been stripping my beloved hometown down to its charred-out core.

Harrowing Fort McMurray wildfire escape

CBC News

5 years ago
Dashcam video captures Michel Chamberland's harrowing escape 6:18

For people who haven't been to Fort McMurray, the images are from a town they have no connection to. But what we see are memories. The recognition of every structure going up in smoke. Being able to identify the houses that the flames are lapping at.

And we all weep collectively — for the city we used to know, and the uncertainty of the reality ahead; for our friends and family who have endured unimaginable tragedy.

It is truly the stuff of nightmares. All we can do is sit in front of our smartphones, our computer screens, our televisions, and our radios. And weep.

We feel helpless. Because we love Fort McMurray. Be it lush and green, or smouldering and black.

The view as the family evacuated Tuesday. (Erin Keca)

Even after I made my move from Fort Mac permanently, I never stopped calling it home. And I never stopped calling myself a McMurrayite.

Judging from the texts and Facebook posts I've had from my other friends who used to live there, we're all on the same page.

Fort McMurray is the thread that ties me to dozens of people I call family and friends.

Parts of our city are charred, but our thread remains intact. And with all of our combined threads, we'll rebuild our city.

Never underestimate the strength of a McMurrayite — past, present, or future.


Jenny Howe

Traffic reporter, The Homestretch

Jenny Howe is the voice of calm on The Homestretch for commuters trying to navigate through Calgary traffic. She's also a dog lover, a baker, a hiker, and a pretty serious pub-trivia player.


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