Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Fort Mac at a distance: Charmed by a scorched city I've never visited

This assignment may have taken him more than 4,000 kilometres away from home, but CBC reporter Terry Roberts writes he felt a deep sense of kinship covering the Fort McMurray disaster.

CBC reporter Terry Roberts felt a deep sense of kinship covering the Fort McMurray disaster

CBC reporter Terry Roberts (left) is pictured here interviewing displaced Fort McMurray residents Christina and John Farrell on Friday. Christina is originally from Corner Brook, while John is from Marystown. (Caroline Hillier/CBC)

I travelled more than 4,000 kilometres on a few hours notice Wednesday to report on how the cataclysmic disaster in Fort McMurray was affecting the lives of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who live and work in the oilsands city.

Edmonton was as close as I got to Fort Mac and those uncontrollable wildfires and scorched neighourhoods, some 400 kilometres to the northeast.

But after spending three days meeting with its displaced and desperate residents, I began to feel a connection to a city I've never visited.

Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A deep connection, in fact, because though most of the people I spoke with were strangers, I felt a kinship; a comfort.

And a profound sense of compassion for the thousands of people whose lives have been tossed into turmoil, many of whom escaped with just a few possessions, and now face an unknown future.

These feelings developed early, and only grew as the days passed.

Why?

Impossible to pass off when the people you meet speak in accents and vernacular that are so familiar, and list off hometowns far to the east that still have a special place in their hearts.

Port Blandford. St. John's. Fogo Island. Corner Brook. Marystown. Bonavista. St. Alban's. Grand Falls-Windsor. Badger. St. Lunaire-Griquet. Bird Cove. Port aux Basques.

The list goes on.

An unprecedented exodus

CBC's Terry Reith tweeted this photo of flames blazing near a Mary Browns restaurant in Fort McMurray on Tuesday. (Twitter/@TerryReithCBC)

I met them in large numbers on the parking lot of an evacuation centre in Edmonton, their faces showing the strain of a hazardous and hasty retreat from a place where they lived, loved and worked.

They were driven out by a tinder-dry boreal forest that erupted into a graphic and unstoppable inferno.

It was an unprecedented exodus from a strategic city in the heart of Alberta's massive oil industry.

Some were lucky enough to have learned their homes were still standing; many more were heartbroken in the knowledge that everything they owned had gone up in flames.

Many Edmontonians were welcoming the Fort McMurray evacuees, such as these people who were offering free hugs to those arriving from the devastating experience. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

I watched them walk inside a massive convention centre, some holding hands with bewildered children, seeking answers about insurance, housing and other emergency support.

I watched grown men break down, but vow with an unbending determination to return to Fort Mac and rebuild.- Terry Roberts

Some, I knew personally, including Badger native Connie Howell.

"We lost everything," she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"I managed to get a few things yesterday, but everything that I worked so hard for, and everything they worked so hard for, and everything we had put together for Peter, is all gone."

Strong, self-sufficient, hard working people, cast adrift and made vulnerable by a disaster that did not discriminate, regardless of their lot in life.

The stories were heartbreaking and horrific, but also heartening and extraordinary.

Kindness and compassion

I watched grown men break down, but vow with an unbending determination to return to Fort Mac and rebuild, regardless of how much time and effort it took.

Home foundations and shells of vehicles are nearly all that remain in a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Despite the destruction, many in the city are determined to rebuild.

A young mother feeding an infant child spoke of how this disaster would make her family stronger, while everyone spoke with great gratitude of the outpouring of support, kindness and compassion being shown by Albertans in particular, and Canadians in general.

A beautiful place filled with beautiful people, is how Cathy Harnum-Flynn described Fort McMurray when I met her on Thursday.

Her lofty opinion is well earned.

The Bishop's Falls native spent 17 years in Fort McMurray before relocating with her husband Audie a few years ago to Sherwood Park, just outside Edmonton.

"If I needed to stack 'em three and four high, I would do that. As long as I had room, anybody could come," Harnum-Flynn responded when asked why she opened her home to evacuees.

If she is the benchmark by which Fort Mac's finest can be judged, it's clear that while this city may be battered, it's far from defeated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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