Mixture of Loss, Hope for Canadian Town Hit by Wildfire

The burnt remains of a barbecue are pictured in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray,Alberta, Canada, after wildfires forced the evacuation of the town. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)
The burnt remains of a barbecue are pictured in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray,Alberta, Canada, after wildfires forced the evacuation of the town. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Charred bicycles lean on a fence in front of incinerated town homes. Just across the street, a school and playground are untouched.

Across this Canadian oil sand town, the contrast is repeated: neighborhoods that burned to their foundations, while other neighborhoods, strip malls, car dealerships, schools and hospitals are still standing.

Nearly a week after people started evacuating Fort McMurray as a massive wildfire surrounded them, more than 40 journalists were allowed into the city Monday on a bus escorted by police, as the forest surrounding the road into town still smoldered.

The first neighborhood seen, Beacon Hill, was an example of the worst a fire can do.

At one lot, a barbecue sat in the driveway, a few feet away from a charred pickup truck, its wheels melted into the ground, the debris surrounding them the scattered components of what was once a house.

Lot by lot the scene was repeated: homes burned to their foundation and reduced to rubble.

A short drive away, nearly an entire trailer park community burned to the ground, the exception a single line of homes in the last row.

Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen said he knew residents were likely monitoring media reports to find out the status of their neighborhoods. He briefly choked up while saying he wanted them to know that emergency responders “gave their all.”

“We did our very best,” he said.

Even with all of the personal loss, nearly 90 percent of the city is still standing, including the downtown district. Allen said that the fire got as close as the corner of a bank, but firefighters were able to fight back the flames. If that had not been successful, he said, downtown would have been lost.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said about 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed in the city, but firefighters managed to save 25,000 others, including the hospital, municipal buildings and every functioning school.

Fort McMurray “is a home you are going to return to,” she promised residents at a news conference Monday.

Those 80,000 residents are scattered throughout the province, some staying at evacuation centers, others with family and friends.

MacKenzie hasn’t been back to the neighborhood, which is still under the mandatory evacuation order, but he knows what he’ll find when officials allow residents to return.

“I know my house is gone,” he said.

Dale Kossey, 57, is staying with his wife at a home in Lac La Biche while they await news of their home in the Timberlea neighborhood.

Kossey, an electrician for an oil mine contractor that works for Syncrude, said Tuesday that he watched the news images from Monday’s media tour in hopes of catching a glimpse of his house and was disappointed that his neighborhood wasn’t among those visited by the media.

The images he saw of other neighborhoods were sobering.

“It’s just so heartbreaking to see,” he said.

He said that he’s received a notice from his condo association that his home is still standing, but he’s skeptical.

“I won’t believe it until I see it,” he said. “I’ve heard so many different rumors I don’t know what to believe.”

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