Politics

'I don't even know what to say': Haunting Fort McMurray scenes leave evacuees at loss for words

As Fort McMurray evacuees learned the fate of their homes and businesses through news reports, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose visited Lac La Biche to encourage the federal government to boost infrastructure spending to the area.

Getting oil production back on track should be among top priorities, interim Tory Leader Ambrose says

Media given new access to burned city 1:25

Exhausted, anxious and desperate families huddled around the television at the evacuation centre in Lac La Biche, Alta., on Monday, watching through tired eyes for any sign that their homes may have been spared from the wildfire that ravaged Fort McMurray. 

A bus tour through the oil and gas boom town was broadcast live by news channels and simultaneously narrated by Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen, who said that fire crews "gave their all" to save whatever they could. 

The images, one teenage boy remarked to his mom, were like scenes from the film War of the Worlds. There were burned-out cars and collapsed buildings. A thick layer of ash and soot covered everything.

Some evacuees like 51-year-old Lorna Sutker couldn't bear to keep watching. 

"I saw the flames as we escaped on Tuesday. I knew it would be bad, but this ... this, I don't even know what to say," she lamented through teary eyes before walking off to find her granddaughter. 

Evacuees in Lac La Biche watch television coverage of Fort McMurray officials taking media on a tour through the remains of the city. Many stuck in Lac La Biche were unsure whether their homes survived the blaze. (Lucas Powers/CBC)

Arthur Lagimodiere, who moved into a new home in Fort McMurray a little more than a week before the fire erupted, didn't know his house had been lost until he saw the TV broadcast. 

"How many times do you have to build from scratch?" he asked the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault in an interview, fighting back tears.

Some families just sat in a quiet embrace. Others, seemingly at a loss for words, wandered the foyer of the Bold Center, a sprawling recreational facility that is housing 420 evacuees.

More than 4,700 other people have registered with the Red Cross at the building and thousands more have come for hot meals, essential supplies and warm clothes over the past week, officials said. 

Arthur Lagimodiere, right, moved into a home in Fort McMurray just days before the wildfire ripped through parts of the city. He learned Monday through news reports that the house was lost. (CBC)

Ambrose's home province

Just metres away, outside the evacuation centre, interim federal Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose was speaking to reporters and evacuees about the need to get Fort McMurray's oil and gas industry back up and running. 

Flanked by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Fort McMurray's Tory MP David Yurgida, the leader of the Official Opposition began by pointing out that she hadn't come to make political theatre of criticizing the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

"This is my home province, so of course I am here," she said during her impromptu trip to Lac La Biche,

The small town of about 2,500 people, 290 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, quickly became a destination after the mandatory evacuation. The parking lot at the rec centre is packed with RVs, while some evacuees have chosen to live in their cars. 

"I am not going to be critical of the prime minister," Ambrose continued, adding that "he has his reasons for not being here, and I am sure he'll be here at some point."

Infrastructure funding

Part way through her address, muted cheers went up inside after Alberta Premier Rachel Notley revealed during a live televised media conference that fire crews had managed to save between 85 and 90 per cent of the structures in Fort McMurray. 

One woman let out a sigh of relief and subtly made the sign of the cross as she heard the news. 

Still, it could take years to rebuild Fort McMurray, and Ambrose said that should be the federal government's priority in the coming weeks and months.

"The only request I've made so far of the prime minister so far is to start to re-prioritize some of the infrastructure funding. There's only so much, and this community is going to need it," she said to scattered applause from people in the small crowd.

Once people can return, the focus should be on getting Fort McMurray oil back onto the market. Ambrose said global headlines about the fire, which scorched more than 2,000 square kilometres, have spooked investors. 

Rona Ambrose speaks with CBC's Rosemay Barton about what can be done to rebuild the the Fort McMurray community 5:58

"Getting that production back online as quickly as possible, it's important not just for the economy of this community but for the GDP of our country," she added.

Ambrose also said the federal government should make accommodations for workers in urgent need of employment insurance.

'They can keep talking'

When reporters asked what role climate change may be playing in longer, more intense fire seasons, Wildrose Leader Jean jumped in, saying that "there's no question climate change is affecting things right across the North," but that Alberta has always faced big wildfires. 

After the media conference, some evacuees expressed frustration that they've been given no precise time for when they might be able to return to their homes.

'Getting [oilsands] production back online as quickly as possible, it's important not just for the economy of this community but for the GDP of our country,' says interim Tory Leader Rona Ambrose. (CBC)

Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake has said that while many desperately want to return to assess the damage, residents will not be home any time soon.

Bob Kuelieg, 63, said he's been living in his small SUV since Tuesday. He's on five medications after a hernia operation last winter and a heart attack in March. But he wanted to leave the cots inside the evacuation centre for families.

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      "The Red Cross says they've raised over $50 million," Kuelieg said, sipping cold coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "They gave each of us $50. What am I supposed to do with that? I don't have a fridge, so I can't buy a lot of groceries. How long will I have to lay, in pain, in my car?"

      He commended the volunteers, saying they've been like guardian angels.

      "But politicians? They can keep talking. The proof will be in the pudding."

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      About the Author

      Lucas Powers

      Senior Writer

      Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email lucas.powers@cbc.ca any time.

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