Day 6

Connie Shields has a plan for Fort McMurray's stinking, condemned fridges

Many Fort McMurray residents got to go home this week, nearly a month after forest fires destroyed huge parts of the city. There will be many challenges in the coming months. And one of the most immediate is what to do with thousands of fridges full of rotting food left to sit for a month amidst the heat of a raging fire ... in bear country. Connie Shields, President of Fort McMurray's MIB Movers tells Brent about her plan.
Condemned refrigerators line the curbs of Fort McMurray in the wake of last month's devastating wildfire. (Chris Corday / CBC News)

On May 3, as residents of Fort McMurray prepared their families for the mass evacuation ordered by the province, no one knew how long they'd be away from their house, or what they'd find when they returned.

The last thing on their minds was what was in the fridge. A freezer full of deer meat or cod fillets or a couple litres of milk were not priorities for people fleeing walls of flame.

This week, as the evacuees returned, peoples' forgotten fridges became priorities.

When I opened the door, what I smelled was the fridge. It was not nice.- Connie Shields, MIB Movers in Fort McMurray

Houses that escaped smoke damage, that were not covered in ash, that survived the flames still presented a major problem to their owners, a stinking toxic box that once had held their food.

That's what happened to Connie Shields.

"I'm directly across from the fire line," she tells Brent Bambury on CBC Day6, "And about 10 blocks in front of me is gone. So I was totally expecting the house to be filled with smoke. When I opened the door, what I smelled was the fridge."

"It was not nice."

Thousands of fridges full of goo

It's not just her own fridge Connie will be dealing with. She's the president of MIB Moving, and her company is one of two involved in bringing new fridges to peoples' homes. That means they're also processing the fouled appliances before they're junked.

And those appliances are disgusting.

Before the fire, there were many well stocked fridges in Fort Mac, the contents reflecting the diversity of the city.

"Some of them full of seafood," says Connie, "We have a lot of people from the East Coast here and there's a lot of seafood and there's a lot of moose and deer meat."

Not anymore. Perishable food locked in an unrefrigerated box for a month sitting next to the heat of a giant wildfire breaks down quickly. Now, all that food is toxic goo. Connie's team take extra precautions to handle it.

"They have to wear coveralls, gloves and a respirator," she says.

The movers tape the appliances shut before moving them to prevent an accidental opening. But it's still a messy and difficult job. Matt Walsh, one of the movers, says the tape may keep the doors shut, but the liquefied food can still escape.

"Bringing it the down the stairs, sometimes the contents of the fridge likes to shift and, you know, you can wind up with some little leaks and some pretty great smells," he says. "They definitely turn the stomach and it gets pretty nasty."

Matt says it's hard to imagine the powerful stench until you've actually experienced it.

"I don't know if anyone's ever gone on vacation and maybe left some dirty dishes in the sink and when you come back … this is times that by 10."

Dealing with the waste

The volume of ruined appliances and rotting food is a logistical problem for a community faced with multiple challenges. Directions from authorities change daily as they work on finding solutions. Initially, the province told home owners to seal their fridges and leave them on the curb.

"That changed within the first day," says Connie, "Because we're in bear country."

Ultimately, the province approved sending the fridges to Fort McMurray's landfill where they will likely be moved again to relieve pressure on the local site as thousands of appliances are junked.

"And that's just the fridges", says Connie, "There's the debris from 2,300 homes that has to be taken somewhere. And the cars that were burned."

And then there's the foul organic matter which needs to be removed and treated separately.

"Double-bagged in special heavy duty bags into the garbage", says Connie, "The landfill is going to take care of that."

Some insurance companies asked residents not to open their appliances to avoid contaminating their homes. Connie's insurer had a different request.

"My insurance adjuster wanted me to take pictures of everything that's in my fridge in order for it to be covered. So I told him my fridge is sitting on my deck and he can take his pictures, because I'm not."

Of course, ultimately her staff will be clearing out the contents.

"In the end that's exactly who's going to be doing it."

Like many in the community, some of the staff at MIB Movers also lost their homes, but are still reporting for work and processing the mess. Connie says her staff, and the city itself, are up to the job.

"It's astronomical. We're not talking days and weeks, we're talking months and years. Fort McMurray is maybe a little different than some places. Everybody's coming back with their sleeves rolled up."

Just one of the many fridges that had to be condemned following the forest fire that ravaged Fort McMurray in May 2016. (Chris Corday / CBC News)