Albertans now have a better appreciation of unique northern town, says longtime resident

More than 80,000 people were forced to evacuate Fort McMurray in early May when a wildfire burned its way towards our city. Ash and smoke swallowed communities whole. The blaze was dubbed “The Beast” by Fire Chief Darby Allen.

As a budding journalist, this was the first time I ever really witnessed my hometown being so talked about in the media, and among my colleagues, for anything else besides oil.

I originally moved to Calgary to attend university, leaving family and many life-long friends behind. At first, I really enjoyed life in the big city. It provided me with a chance to grow — a new challenge, a new opportunity.

But my tone changed the moment I went home for Thanksgiving in October 2012. Instantly, I was reminded of everything that I had lost by moving away: the people, the trees, the familiarity, the home.

Gridlock traffic turned our street into a parking lot as my family tried to flee the fires. Photo courtesy of Melanie WalshAfter that weekend I visited often. Adjusting to a new city was difficult, and especially so amidst the chaos of university life, but I was grateful for the experience. It helped me learn to appreciate just how comfortable I felt in Fort McMurray.

I often got frustrated when introducing myself to others in my new surroundings. Upon hearing I was from Canada’s most recognizable oil city, people would often apologize or make jokes about those roots. It made it difficult for me to make friends, to relate to others in Calgary, despite its deep economic ties to the north.

Even my roommate once admitted that when she pictured Fort Mac, she just imagined a one-street city with a gas station and a couple of houses strewn about. A born-and-bred Albertan herself, she was astonished to hear about our extensive infrastructure, the many schools and forests filling the city limits.

I returned home every summer during my studies, one of which I spent working at the local tourism office. I welcomed newcomers to my city, guiding tourists through my old stomping grounds — the heart of the Canadian oil sands operation.

Again I was bombarded by negativity, though this was often swiftly remedied once travellers caught their first glimpse of our bustling community buried in a lush valley of the boreal forest.

“Wow, you have a river!” some would exclaim. I would correct them, noting that five major rivers run through our city limits: the Athabasca, Clearwater, Horse, Christina, and Hangingstone Rivers.

Satellite imagery of Thickwood, the neighbourhood in which my family currently lives, and one of the hardest hit by the Horse River Fires. Burn scars transformed the lower half of the image from lush forest to grey ash. Our house, which backs onto that once-green space, was luckily protected from the fires, due to its safe location behind a city snowdumping site, pictured center-right. Photo courtesy of Melanie Walsh.Fort McMurray is a beautiful city. It isn’t a single-lane pit stop, or industrial wasteland. To me, Fort McMurray will always be more than a place to grab a paycheque. It is where I grew up. It is home.

A geographically isolated community, I’ve always known our city to be a place of unity, of strength from within. This much has not changed since “The Beast” came to town.

The only difference now is that our community no longer feels isolated.

Our trademark had always been black, thick oil and now that public image was overtaken up by the all-consuming red blaze that took houses, forests, and even lives. But in the process, those flames forged a new identity for Fort McMurray.

People all over Alberta, and Canada as a whole, stepped up during this tragedy, showing their support with such slogans as “Fort McMurray Strong” and “We got your back, Fort Mac.”

Though I remain homesick, I feel at ease as I walk into a store and see donations for Fort McMurray, or offering discounts for evacuees. When I spot a passing vehicle with a sticker of Alberta with a heart over Fort McMurray, I feel love.

Now when I tell people that I’m from Fort McMurray, they apologize, but in a different way. They ask if my family and I are all right, how our home is, if we need anything.

On May 3, my parents evacuated along with my eight-year-old sister and five-year-old niece. They headed north to Fort Mackay where they stayed for the night. My older sister was working north of Fort Mac in Anzac and wasn’t able to reunite with the family, so she headed south. Escaping the flames, barely having enough gas, they all made it to Edmonton the next day and reunited.

The Walsh family pictured outside their Thickwood residence. From left to right: mother Brenda, father Perry, younger sister Madison, reporter Melanie Walsh, and older sister Meaghan. Photo courtesy of Melanie WalshMy older brother took them into his home in Fort Saskatchewan along with other loved ones. Our parents were set up in his camper at a site just five minutes from his house. I flew in from Yellowknife where I was working at a broadcasting company.

We clung to the news, listening for an update on our town, our neighbourhood and our house.

Aside from smoke damage, and our backyard shed melting, we were relieved to find out our house was still standing.

A month later, my family slowly made their way back to the city. They will be getting our house cleaned and bracing themselves for the rebuild.

It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragic event for the rest of Canada to realize that Fort McMurray is more than a resting place for oilsands workers. Fort McMurray is home, and now, because of this tragedy, it’s a home we get to share with the world.

And we are stronger because of that.

Thumbnail courtesy of Greg Verrall.

mwalsh@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca