6 months after Fort McMurray fire, new homes and renewed hope for some — but not all

New homes are springing up in Fort McMurray, Alta., just six months after a forest fire swept into the city, destroying 2,400 structures. One resident is at the forefront of rebuilding his own neighbourhood, which lost 348 homes.

1 determined homeowner fulfills promise to help rebuild his beloved neighbourhood, destroyed in May 3 wildfire

Dawn breaks over Fort McMurray's Stone Creek neighbourhood revealing a flurry of construction, six months after fire levelled 348 homes there. A total of 2,400 structures were destroyed throughout the city when a fast-moving forest fire hit the city on May 3. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

On a corner of a muddy lot along Siltstone Place in Fort McMurray, Alta., Trevor Rowsell stands surveying a foundation that he has just helped put into the ground. With his hard hat and construction vest on, he looks like the other workers scattered across properties along this street. It's a block that is still mostly barren, except for the wooden frames of a few homes now being erected.

Trevor Rowsell is rebuilding his own home, and a neighbour's home in the Stone Creek area. After viewing the devastation on June 2, he vowed to be 'swinging a hammer' as soon as he could, and that's what he's doing five months later. (Terry Reith/CBC News)
"There has been a lot of frustrations going through this process, but I am happy to be here today," Rowsell says.

Five months ago, when he and his wife, Diana Naca-Rowsell, were here, it was the first day they were allowed back into Fort McMurray after the May 3 forest fire that prompted a mass evacuation of the city's residents and left 2,400 homes and other structures destroyed.

At the time, they drove up to their neighbourhood, got out of their truck and peered through the metal fencing that had been erected to keep people out.

They reminisced about the modern subdivision where they had lived for the past five years being a place where young families would gather around in the summer, hosting barbecues and block parties.

The Stone Creek neighbourhood on June 2, one month after the fire swept through the city, destroying hundreds of homes. Today, the debris has been cleared, and rebuilding has begun. (Terry Reith/CBC News)
Now, all that lay before them was a wide swath of rubble.

Through tears, his wife spoke of mourning the loss of their home, a place where they had started raising their one-and-half-year old son.

"It was our first house," she said at the time. "To see it in a pile of rubble, it's hard."

Her husband pointed through the fence at what was left of their lot.

"If I could be in there today, I would be swinging hammers and putting houses back up. I would be "

Rowsell and his wife, Diana Naca-Rowsell, with their son, Keegan, before the fire destroyed their home. They hope to move into their new home home in February. (Trevor Rowsell)

Fast forward five months, the debris has been trucked away, and Rowsell is not only rebuilding his home but his neighbour's as well.

He works in shifts of two weeks on and one week off, which means he is separated for long periods of time from his wife, who stays up at a work camp at a Syncrude oilsands site, and from his son, Keegan, who is staying with his grandmother in Edmonton.

"It is hard. My son turns two next week, and I am going to be working, but it is all for the greater good," Rowsell said.

Contamination concerns delay building permits

Of the 2,400 buildings destroyed in the fast-moving wildfire, rebuilding permits have been issued for just over 10 per cent of them.

A construction worker helps Rowsell rebuild two homes on Siltstone Place in Fort McMurray. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Rowsell had thought his home would be rebuilt by now, but there were delays in getting the area cleaned up and the paperwork in place. After the fire, approximately 500,000 tonnes of debris, made up of ash, concrete and steel, were hauled away from damaged neighbourhoods to landfills.

There were concerns about soil contamination, which is partly why it took longer to get the rebuilding started, the municipality says. 

"There is so much that we had to figure out so that we could serve people again with safety at the forefront," said Melissa Blake, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, of which Fort McMurray is a part.

She says that the process is now well underway, but Rowsell says that is not the case for everyone.

Just under half of insurance claims settled

He says while he had no issues dealing with his insurance company, others are still struggling to settle their claims, and their frustration is palpable. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, of the 44,000 claims made after the fire, just over 20,000 of them have been closed.

"Seeing the emotions on the homeowners faces ... it is really hard to take it in stride," Rowsell said. "I know people whose [old] foundations are still in the ground."

Rowsell hopes to have his house up in the next eight days but doesn't expect that his family will be able to move in until February. As he instructs his construction crew about the next stage of building, he says he feels gratified that he's helping to rebuild after so much personal loss.

"It really makes you emotional to be able to look at it from six months ago, from what was left until now," he said.



Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart