Four years after devastating wildfire, residents continue journey through trauma to renewal.
When Harvey Tulk returned home to Fort McMurray after the 2016 wildfire that caused one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history, one of the first things he did was volunteer at the local food bank.
Demand for food was high as residents began to trickle back into the community. Grocery stores in the Alberta oil town were in the process of restocking their supplies. But volunteers at the food bank soon found that feeding the community would be more difficult than they had imagined.
“All the food that was there had to be thrown away because it was contaminated by the fire…. We had to clear out all the food, put that in the garbage, clean the facility…then get new food to put back,” Tulk recalls.
The Edmonton Journal reported in August 2016 that the Wood Buffalo Food Bank had to destroy 53,527 items of foodafter the wildfire, due to possible smoke contamination. This loss was coupled with a major increase in need. Arianna Johnson, then-executive director, estimated at that time that 94% of people requesting their services had never visited a food bank before.
Years after the wildfire, demand remains high. In a Bloomberg report from last October, current executive director Dan Edwards estimated that a decade ago, around 2,000 people used the food bank each month. Today, monthly averages remain around four times that number.
For almost four years, Fort McMurray has been recovering from the fire which, at the height of evacuation, forced more than 80,000 people to flee their homes. From May 1, 2016 until it was officially declared out on Aug. 2, the raging wildfire destroyed more than 2,400 homes and buildings and displaced thousands of residents.
In the aftermath of the disaster, local churches played a vital role in helping the community rebuild. Among them was All Saints’ Anglican Church, and one of the congregation’s most tireless volunteers was Tulk.
Originally from the town of Fortune, Nfld., Tulk had served there as mayor, city councillor and a school board trustee. After the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery, Tulk and his wife Lynn sold most of their possessions and moved to Fort McMurray, where they eventually found jobs working in supply management for Shell.
A lifelong Anglican, Tulk had previously served as a people’s warden, greeter, lector and member of the vestry at his congregation in Fortune (coincidentally enough, also called All Saints’ Anglican Church). After relocating to Fort McMurray, he joined All Saints’ Anglican Church there and became a reader, vestry member and team leader of various ministries.
The day the fire came to Fort McMurray and evacuations began, Tulk remembers most people retaining their composure as they hurriedly drove to oil sand work camps outside the city. He describes the situation on the roads as “organized chaos.”
“We had a few drivers that were on the road that panicked because they couldn’t find their children or they couldn’t find their pets…but overall, it was pretty calm,” Tulk says.
Others recall the situation differently. Dane Neufeld, rector at All Saints’, had been in church on the morning of May 6 when he saw a massive plume of smoke billowing over a hill.
He and his wife prepared to leave the town with their four children. Soon the sky had darkened and a mandatory evacuation was called. Only one radio station was operating as residents fled, and most stores and services were shut down.
“Things were a bit chaotic and people were running around…. Society’s suspended for a little while and nobody knew what was going on,” Neufeld recalls.
For some residents, their escape included some truly terrifying experiences.
“We were sent in different directions when we came out of the city,” Neufeld says. “But we had good friends who, with their van full of kids, were driving through walls of flame and they thought they were going to die.”
Compton Vigilance—a retired electrical technician and former member of the congregation at All Saints’ who moved to Fort McMurray with his wife Carolle in 1979—had just arrived home from grocery shopping on May 6 when he learned residents had been given an hour to evacuate. He quickly gathered some belongings and hit the road with family members.
“By the evening we were heading down Highway 63 bumper to bumper through embers,” he remembers. “I had a full tank of gas but my son was driving on fumes when we got to just outside of Conklin.”
Tulk had a similar experience. Despite the slow pace of traffic, he managed to drive to a Shell camp more than an hour away with only a quarter-tank of gas.
“I never had enough gas to get there, but I did,” he says. “I always say, somehow or another, God helped me get there.”
After staying in work camps, many evacuees moved on to Edmonton. Vigilance and his family stayed at his sister’s place in the city. Tulk and his his wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter stayed in an Edmonton hotel for six weeks, paid for by their insurance and Shell.
Meanwhile, Neufeld and his family ended up living in Calgary with his parents for two months. Much of the rector’s time was spent trying to track down members of the congregation, whether by phone or by driving through southern Alberta, to make sure they were safe.
During his enforced exile, Neufeld helped plan a service in Edmonton at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church. Members from two local Anglican churches attended.
“Tons of people showed up…. It was really quite a powerful time,” he says.
By June, some people were being allowed back into Fort McMurray. All Saints’ Church began holding services once again that month.
Tulk returned and threw himself into work to help those affected by the disaster. Through his position at Shell, he helped set up reception centres offering clothes, food, water and information for people coming back into town. Many companies held barbecues for returning evacuees.
Along with his work at the reception centres, the church and the food bank, Tulk also helped out at local soup kitchens. The sheer volume of his volunteer work led to Tulk being prominently featured in This is Home, an award-winning documentary about the Fort McMurray wildfire, in which residents refer to him as a “super-volunteer.”
The initial period after their return to Fort McMurray was a busy one for the town’s population.
“It was a pretty chaotic number of months because everyone’s coming back and cleaning up their houses,” Neufeld says. “People are taking stock of the damage and trying to figure out where they’re going to stay…. It was definitely a challenging time, and people were tired. But there was also energy…. People were exhausted and disoriented, but also motivated to rebuild.”
Some, such as Neufeld and Tulk, were fortunate in that their houses were undamaged. But thousands of other residents lost their homes in the inferno. Compton and Carolle Vigilance saw their house destroyed and ended up buying a new home in Edmonton. Sadly, Carolle died of cancer in 2018.
“We lost our house and a vehicle and all belongings left behind; memories of pictures, memorabilia, and friends,” Vigilance says. “Trying to get what [it was] insured for is still a sore point with me;
I took what was offered because of my wife’s illness, not to have her suffer any longer.”
Many people faced financial challenges or difficulties finding new homes. But as the city sought to rebuild, support began to arrive from outside.
An outpouring of solidarity and donations from across Canada gave a boost to those in need. The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) made a significant contribution as Anglicans from coast to coast donated what they could to help the beleaguered residents of Fort McMurray. By the one-year anniversary of the fire, PWRDF had received more than $280,000 in donations.
Such was the level of donations that All Saints’ formed a committee to distribute funds from PWRDF and others. That committee ultimately had to make some “hard choices,” Neufeld says, in determining who would receive money based on need.
Within the All Saints’ congregation alone, at least 12 families’ homes were destroyed, while half a dozen others’ houses were partially burned or badly damaged.
A large portion of PWRDF funds went to help people with little or no insurance pay their living expenses. PWRDF partnered with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild houses. Other recipients of funding included youth and homeless shelters, kids’ camps and a community garden on the property of All Saints’—a visible sign of residents coming together to create something new and living.
Along with rebuilding physically, many residents had to rebuild psychologically, overcoming the trauma of the disaster and in some cases the loss of homes and property.
In a display of ecumenism, churches from all denominations got involved in providing pastoral care to those affected. One particularly strong partnership was between the Anglican and United churches. Neufeld says Diane Strickland, a critical incident responder, trauma and grief counsellor, and ordained United Church minister, played a crucial role in supporting him in providing pastoral care.
For nearly two years after the fire, Strickland spent one week per month in Fort McMurray providing post-disaster recovery support. She often visited All Saints’ Anglican Church, gave a sermon there and offered counselling.
In helping people deal with trauma, Strickland says, much of pastoral care involves simply listening and recognizing the struggles that others are dealing with.
“People don’t often talk about the disaster very much at all,” Strickland says. “They talk about everything else that is falling apart. They talk about the fact that there are traumas from their whole life that are suddenly alive again, even if people have been through therapy and dealt with this over many years. It’s like the trauma channel in our life gets turned on.”
Strickland has a background in field traumatology and experience in other disasters. After the 2013 Alberta floods—the costliest disaster in Canada’s history until the Fort McMurray wildfire—she spent a year at High River United Church offering spiritual care and flood recovery support to those traumatized by the flooding.
She notes that there are typically several common phases as people experience disasters. First there is a sense of euphoria as people work together to overcome the disaster.
“It’s almost a high, because [for] people, whatever constrained the best part of themselves, it’s not constraining them anymore, and they’re offering it,” Strickland says.
The next phase involves facing consequences of the disaster. Part of this means coming to terms with what Strickland calls “the uneven hand of disaster…the fact that one person’s house is taken and the next person’s isn’t.” Where people tend to struggle more, Strickland says, is “the uneven hand of recovery—why [for] some people, things work out better for them and not for you.”
The ongoing struggle of many Fort McMurray residents today reflects how much of a challenge it can be to recover.
A 2019 study by the journal BMC Psychiatry found a significant rise in mental health issues affecting adolescents in Fort McMurray compared to those in Red Deer, including severe depression and suicidal thoughts. The effects of the fire in Fort McMurray were also compounded by a drop in oil prices, leading to increased unemployment, slowed economic growth and an increase in bankruptcy and divorce.
Through her years of work with those affected by disasters, however, Strickland has seen another phase, in which people begin “believing in this massive capacity to rebirth their lives.”
Given her background in ministry, she connects these phases of disaster to the experience of Jesus’s followers throughout his crucifixion, death and resurrection, which Christians observe during Holy Week. Between commemoration of the crucifixion on Good Friday and the resurrection on Easter Sunday, she says, is a period of uncertainty on Holy Saturday.
“I always like to remember, it even took Jesus three days,” Strickland says.
After a disaster, people experience a similar feeing of uncertainty. But even the resurrection of Jesus, Strickland says, did not mean an instant return to business as usual.
“People didn’t know who Jesus was,” she says. “They were disoriented by his presence. They were heartened when they had that moment, like when Jesus says Mary’s name and suddenly she knows who it is that she’s talking to. That’s a wondrous moment. But it’s not some victory march.”
Significantly, the next major celebration in the church calendar 50 days after Easter is Pentecost, which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the apostles and other followers of Jesus.
For Strickland, the presence of the Holy Spirit is visible when people begin the process of “rebirth” after trauma.
“I had a client this morning and I was watching the same thing…. The Spirit’s at work, and he’s choosing this,” she says. “He’s choosing to heal, he’s choosing to know that there are some things that are going to be gone and maybe gone forever, and he’s still going to be in his life and he’s still going to love and he’s still going to participate in life.”
Despite all the challenges facing Fort McMurray since the wildfire, Tulk also describes a new spirit that has made its presence felt among residents.
“If there is anything good” that came out of the fire, he says, it’s that “neighbours became neighbours.”
“This is a diverse community,” Tulk says. “There are people here that live next door to people for 20, 30 years, and they don’t know who that neighbour is…But now, the fire brought out the human compassion of people. They feel…we’re all part of one. We’re all [one] flock. We’re doing it together.
“It brought out that confidence that your neighbour understood what you were going through and you tried to help. That’s the other thing: people realized just how willing other people were to help. When you help somebody, you feel good and it makes them feel good.”
In his own reflections, Vigilance describes the meaning of the wildfire in even more expansive terms.
“The fire,” he says, “was and is an example of cleansing and spiritual awakening.”
Many more stories remain to be told about Fort McMurray, a city where environmental and economic concerns reflect the most urgent global issues of our time. Forthcoming issues of the Anglican Journal will explore these stories in greater detail. To be continued…