'Welcome Home Fort McMurray': Amended sign salutes returning residents

A temporary change to the Fort McMurray's welcome sign is a hit with returning city residents.

Improvised addition to city's sign brings Fort Mac residents to tears

Chris Byrne, one of the few residents allowed back into the city before the evacuation orders were lifted, decided to make the temporary change to the city's welcome sign.

"Welcome Home Fort McMurray."

That's the message tens of thousands of evacuees will see as they return to the wildfire-ravaged city for the first time since the evacuation en masse.

Chris Byrne, one of the few residents allowed back into the city before the evacuation orders were lifted, decided to make the temporary change to the city's welcome sign, which usually reads "Welcome to Fort McMurray."

And a video he posted that shows him climbing a ladder to make the change has gone viral.

"I had an inkling that it would be shared a couple times, but then you find out, it hasn't even been 24 hours yet and we've had 300,000 views," said Byrne, who has worked in Fort McMurray for six years as the afternoon host on Rock 97.9, a local radio station.

"Over 300,000 people watched me climb a ladder, that's pretty humbling," Byrne said with a chuckle.

"That's the overwhelming part of the whole thing is how people have responded."

Byrne's signs were not the only ones to welcome residents home.

'We will rebuild'

Six billboards line the highway into town. 

  • "Welcome back."
  • "We are here. We are strong."
  • "Thank you for being resilient."
  • "Together we will rebuild."
  • "Safe. Resilient. Together."
  • "Thank you for staying safe." 

Robin Smith, the press secretary for Wood Buffalo, said the idea for the billboards came together within six hours two days ago. 

They feature two of the main phrases that have been uttered time and time again by the first responders and evacuees alike, "Safe. Resilient. Together," and "We are here. We are strong."

A set of six billboards thanking Fort McMurray evacuees are greeting them upon their return. (Media Resources Inc)

"Safe. Resilient. Together," was coined by Bob Couture, the director of emergency management, Smith said.

"We are here. We are strong," came from Darby Allen, the former director of emergency management, who also first tagged the wildfire "the beast."

"Those are two statements that really kind of ring true for what returning residents think of when they return home," Smith said.

The municipality worked with the company Media Resources Inc. to get the billboards up. Smith said they have been standing for about 48 hours. 

He felt it was important to make sure the returning evacuees saw them.

"This is the [Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo] trying to speak directly to our residents. We want them to know we are very proud of them, of how they carried themselves during this crisis," said Smith. 

"When people come into town, we want them to see the strength they have reflected in the community they live in."

Hashtag solidarity

Along with the messages, the billboards feature the twitter hashtag #ymmstrong.

​As with any disaster in the modern age, social media played a major role in disseminating information and bringing people together. 

The Twitter account of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo handled the emergency gracefully, getting accurate information to evacuees in a timely manner using the hashtag #ymmstrong, which became a rallying cry.

The municipality takes no credit for the hashtag's success, Smith said.

"To be perfectly honest, #ymmstrong is the people. Nobody owns that except our residents and they are making that hashtag what it is," said Smith.

"We know that if we need to reach people, it's there and we know what it means to people when they say #ymmstrong." 

Duct tape and plastic

As for Byrne and his homemade welcome, he said he got the idea to change the sign on his drive into the city Sunday.

After settling into his Timberlea home, Byrne got to work scrounging the materials he needed for his makeshift sign.

"Obviously, there is nothing open, so you can't just go to Home Hardware and pick something up."

With some duct tape and a piece of plastic he found at the radio station, Byrne got to work.

"It's literally held up with duct tape." 

The six billboards feature terms coined by the two directors of emergency management. (Media Resources Inc)
Byrne said he's overwhelmed with the emotional responses the sign has garnered.

"It's brought some people to tears. And I drove down there, and people are honking as they drive by, and I had to take a moment to kind of breathe that in."