Amid the devastation, Fort McMurray wildfire leaves a hint of mercy

How did the Fort McMurray wildfire fire somehow spare a little wooden memorial cross with a Plexiglas framed photo and tiny lights when the ground around it is an angry, scorched black?

Handmade wooden memorial to man who died 6 years ago in car crash survives blaze

The remarkable story of how a memorial marker was spared from the Fort McMurray wildfire, and reaction from the family of the man who died. 3:47

How did the Fort McMurray fire somehow decide to spare the little wooden memorial cross with its Plexiglas framed photo and tiny lights when the ground all around it is an angry, scorched black?

Michael Leclercq was lost to a car crash six years ago. That the 29-year-old's marker would survive the fire was the only kind thing that has happened to his aunt, Maxine Leclercq, this week.

She raised Michael after his mom — her sister — committed suicide when he was 13.

Michael Leclercq was killed in a car crash six years ago on Highway 881 south of Fort McMurray. (Maxine Leclercq/Facebook)

In Maxine's house near Anzac, Alta., were all of Michael's treasures: baby bracelet, pictures, even a little box with his ashes.

Last week as flames licked up near her home, she had to leave all that behind. And she knew pretty quickly she'd never see any of them again.

She grabbed her six pets, a trembling jumble of cats and dogs, and jumped in the car.

As she and her husband, Remy, drove past the marker along Highway 881, as they did almost every day, there was one last sad thought for Michael.

"Remy said: 'Who knows when we'll see you again my boy.' It was hard," Maxine said.

Remy had built the memorial. He'd hired a friend to make the wooden cross and he'd put Michael's picture in that Plexiglas frame with an extra helping of epoxy to seal out the elements.

Maxine Leclercq lost her home in the wildfire, but was relieved to discover the memorial to her nephew Michael Leclercq was unscathed. (CBC)

He chose perfectly white gravel for the base and to hold a little box carrying cigarettes.

"We'd go talk to him, smudge, pray," she said.

They were sure the marker would be burned up. It was another injury after losing their home and potentially their jobs.

They wanted to retire next year. Now? Well, who knows.

A few days later, a woman they do not know was on her way into Fort McMurray.

Rebbeca Irving of Whitmoor Vac Services was part of a crew heading in with supplies and equipment for firefighters.

We had met the day before and she had promised to send us photos of anything she saw that stood out for her.

The handmade memorial to Michael Leclercq, shown before the wildfire ripped through the area, survived the blaze. (Maxine Leclercq/Facebook)

And the scene of that lone, clean, unscathed marker in an otherwise blackened field so leapt at her she sent picture after picture, all of them accompanied with questions about why or how fire does that.

So we looked for Michael's relatives, which is how we came to be sitting with Maxine on a picnic table outside the Bold Centre in Lac La Biche. We explained the photos and then pulled them out for her.

Here's how the conversation went:

Adrienne Arsenault: "It's all burned. Except for his marker."

Maxine: "Oh my God. Except for his marker!... Oh everything, even the lights, everything….

Adrienne: "I can't explain that."

Maxine: "Neither can I. Remy will be so happy … oh my good God. That's so nice, it's there."

Maxine Leclercq, it seems, is a calm, gentle woman who has been severely stressed these last few days.

She'd had chest pains after fleeing but realizes now it was just panic. She's slowly pulling it all together.

Maxine Leclercq took this photo as she fled from the wildfire. (Maxine Leclercq/Facebook)

So a little bit of good news amounts to, she says, a fair amount of relief.

The road past the marker is still closed to those without permission to be there, but she says she can now make a plan to go see Michael.

"I'm so happy we have a place to go talk to him."

What she would say to him?

"How much we miss him. I tell him that every day."

She wants Irving's number and Irving wants hers. There are promises to connect over what was found in all that has been lost.

About the Author

Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.