'A day of absolute fear': Islanders in Fort McMurray look back one year later

One year after the evacuation, memories of the Fort McMurray fire are vivid for Prince Edward Islanders who lived through last year's disaster, including one Island family that lost everything.

'Just the faintest smell of something burning escalates my heart rate'

Homes burn in Fort McMurray, Alta., during last year's fires. One of the firefighters sent this to Donna Jesso's family's landlord, who sent it to them. (Submitted by Donna Jesso)

Donna Jesso and her family have spent the last year re-building their lives in Fort McMurray, Alta., after losing their home and all of their possessions in the wildfire that raced through the community on May 3, 2016. 

"Coming into Fort McMurray I was nervous, I didn't know what it was going to be like," said Jesso, who is originally from Montague, P.E.I. She and her daughter Jamie Dawn and son Brandon moved to Alberta four years ago, while husband Eddie has been working out west for a decade.

The family returned to Fort McMurray a month after they were evacuated.

"It was emotional because they had these great big signs saying, 'We're here, we're strong,'" said Jesso.

"I was surprised, you see a bunch of burned trees but the new grass coming up — all you see is bright green."

Donna Jesso and her family are shown in 2014, at Brandon's graduation. Most of the family's photos were lost in the fire. (Submitted by Donna Jesso)

'It was all ash'

They already knew their house was destroyed, but seeing it was still hard.

"There was nothing left standing. It was all ash," said Jesso.

Searchers had gone through the wreckage of the house but had only found some of her jewelry, all melted gold now. The family had also lost their pet bearded dragon in the fire.

There was still some anxiety on the first night back, as Jesso heard a helicopter pass over the house.

"I jumped up and I panicked and I ran to the window to see if the helicopter had a bucket hanging from it," she said.

"Right now they're doing controlled burns, making fire barriers and, just seeing smoke, you want to panic and then you realize it's OK, it's not a fire."

Donna Jesso and her family lost everything in the fire. All that was left were the ashes and some melted jewelry. (Submitted by Donna Jesso)

It made us stronger

Jesso works for a fire restoration company and talks to people daily who are still rebuilding their homes and their lives.

"I think it made us stronger — material things don't matter as much," she said.

Getting settled has taken a while. They have had to move three times in six months since returning to Fort McMurray.

"Lot of people were putting the rent high so it was scary for a while and to not know if we would have a place," said Jesso. "But we did find a place to rent long term so that stress is gone.

"Things are getting back to normal for us and for Fort McMurray," she said.

This is what the Jesso family's neighbourhood looks like now, with lots of construction still underway. (Submitted by Donna Jesso)

Tears of joy

"I will remember May 3 for the rest of my life," said Shannon Comeau, who's originally from Charlottetown.

She, her husband, three children and her parents were evacuated as the fire approached their neighbourhood. They headed to Edmonton to wait. 

Shannon Comeau and her family pose as life gets back to normal in Fort McMurray. (Submitted by Shannon Comeau)

She was able to return one month later and cried tears of joy when she found her house still standing, dandelions on her lawn.

Now, one year later, Comeau is feeling emotional as what she calls the evacu-versary approaches.

Shannon Comeau returns to her house in Fort McMurray for the first time after being evacuated. (Submitted by Shannon Comeau)

"It's becoming more vivid," said Comeau, who says the winter's heavy snowfall covered a lot of the damage and it's being revealed again as the snow melts.

"For me, I feel myself getting a little bit overwhelmed as it approaches. It's something you're not sure whether to celebrate it or how to remember." 

The view from Shannon Comeau's vehicle as the family fled the fire on May 3, 2016. (Submitted by Shannon Comeau)

Smell of smoke

For Comeau, there are still emotional triggers connected to the evacuation.

"Just the faintest smell of something burning escalates my heart rate," said Comeau.

"Even the simplest things like packing a suitcase and wondering if I have everything should I not be able to go home, I don't think that memory will ever leave." 

Shannon Comeau and her family attended lots of community events in Fort McMurray after the fire including a Canada Day parade featuring firefighters and first responders. (Submitted by Shannon Comeau)

Comeau and her family spent a lot of the year since the fire taking part in community events as Fort McMurray recovered. That included a giant outdoor yoga class, a welcome back football game and Canada Day celebrations where a big crowd came out to thank fire departments and first responders.

Shannon Comeau's stand outside their school on their first day back. (Submitted by Shannon Comeau)

The fire and evacuation also has Comeau and her family re-thinking their lives.

"It highlighted some things that are important to us," she said, pointing to one friend in Fort Mac who was engaged for a long time and is finally getting married this year.

"People look at things differently. I am working hard to live the minimalist life and I hear that from a lot of people."

"We need each other, the basic needs of life, but things are things, and things can go away. So how do you want to live your life?"

A haze hangs over Fort McMurray on May 4, 2016, the day Ashley MacLeod was evacuated. (Sylvain Bascaron/Radio-Canada)

'Scariest day'

"I remember that day as the scariest of my life and I think I always will," said Stratford, P.E.I.'s Ashley MacLeod.

"You go into a kind of automatic save-yourself mentality where you know you've got to get to safety right away."

MacLeod is now packing to return to Fort McMurray for the first time since she fled the city on May 4, with nothing but her dog and a small bag.

"I'm a little nervous, to be honest, as I have not been back since," said MacLeod. 

"The idea of flying in and seeing what remains of one of the places I call home, it's a bit scary.

Ashley MacLeod remembers hitchhiking and then walking alone down a six-lane highway with nothing except her dog and a small bag. (Submitted by Ashley MacLeod)

'Day of absolute fear'

"I love the city and its people though, so I know that it will be fine," said MacLeod, who has spent the last year studying at Holland College in Charlottetown.

"I'm most interested to see how the city has evolved and how it has grown despite the devastating situation."

The fire and the evacuation have changed MacLeod.

"It still scares me, but it has proven to me above all else that I really can accomplish anything," she said.

"It was a day of absolute fear but it was also the day that I look back on most when I need to rally to get through something," said MacLeod.

"I'm strong enough to survive that. I can get through anything."

An RCMP officer surveys Fort McMurray, Alta. buildings, which had burned to rubble following the wildfires. (RCMP Alberta)