The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo continues to rebuild two years after the Horse River wildfire swept through the region.
On May 3, 2016, around 88,000 people were forced to evacuate from Fort McMurray and surrounding areas.
The blaze, which was only declared extinguished last August, destroyed 2,579 properties.
Since then, as of April 20, 523 homes have been given the green light by the RMWB for families to move back in – which represents nearly 20 per cent of all properties.
Abasand continues to see the most progress with 160 finished rebuilds followed by Beacon Hill, 115, Stone Creek, 113, Wood Buffalo, 59, and Waterways, 34, according to the latest municipal numbers.
“We’re on pace with what was projected, but I always want more people in their homes,” Mayor Don Scott said speaking on Fort McMurray Matters.
The municipality believes the numbers will continue to grow at a fast rate – expecting more than 1,000 families to be living in their rebuilt homes by the end of the year.
So far, 2,044 development permits have been issued.
Scott says while they’re still focused on recovery efforts, he feels people are talking to him less about the wildfire.
“It’s a time of reflection for certain, I know there are many people still thinking about it. What concerns me deeply is some of the young people that have talked to me,” said Scott. “Every now and then I have a young person who talks to me about the wildfire and that does concern me, I want to make sure they’re getting the help they need.”
Scott is encouraging anyone who is looking for support to reach out.
“Your community stands behind you – we stand with you.”
Home, Two Years Later
The road to recovery hasn’t been an easy one for many residents.
People are still trying to settle insurance claims as the 2-year May 3 deadline hits, others have dealt with shoddy work done by contractors resulting in the province bringing in investigators, while others rebuilds have resulted in lawsuits.
However, “relief” has come to one Fort McMurray family who finally returned home nearly two years to the day they found out their property perished in the wildfire.
Nolan Haukeness and his wife Jenine, who are expecting a second child along with their daughter Aiden, just moved into their newly rebuilt home in Abasand on April 30.
The Haukeness’ started their insurance claim immediately on May 3, 2016, with construction starting exactly one year later.
“It’s a battle you’ve been fighting for two-years, life being on hold for those two-years – it’s a giant sense of relief that we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Nolan.
He adds the little things are what he missed the most.
“Not having to do laundry two-stories down or get the kids loaded up for school and not have to climb down flights of stairs will be a giant weight off our shoulders.”
Throughout the process, the Haukeness’ say they learned a lot of lessons they hope to pass along to people still waiting to start their rebuild.
The most important being patience and perseverance.
“It’s going to take longer than you think it is,” Nolan added. “Stay on your builders for things you want and make sure those things match what you have in your contract and always have something in writing.”
The family also has a lot of high hopes for the neighbourhood.
Many have already moved back in with the municipality already fixing many of the parks and other public places across Abasand.
“We’re a strong community that’s really come together after this.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to be better but if we can get back to where we were, that would be my hope.”
While some start to look into the future, others are still lingering in the past.
Mental health continues to be a big concern two years later, especially with our first responders.
While speaking to reporters on Thursday, Fire Chief Jody Butz says the health of his men and women will always be a top priority even as we separate ourselves from the fire.
“The long-term vision of the health and wellness of our firefighters are going to remain in the forefront.”
He also believes his first responders are in a much better place mentally.
“Conversations around the wildfire – it happens, less now than it certainly was and generally we want to put that in our past.”
Meanwhile, Butz says the knowledge residents now have when it comes to emergency preparedness is the biggest change he’s seen over the past two-years.
Business as usual for Fort McMurray schools
School districts in the region are continuing to make sure mental health supports are in the place for staff and students.
Fort McMurray Catholic School District spokesperson Megan McKenny says they’ve had additional mental health support in their schools since classes returned in September 2016.
“We at Fort McMurray Catholic Schools know this will be a long recovery in our community. And we will continue to work with several partners, including the Red Cross, Alberta Education, the RMWB, and our partners at Fort McMurray Public Schools to do our absolute best for the entire Fort McMurray Catholic Schools family,” says McKenny.
As for Thursday, she says it will be a day of reflection for many and they will recognize the day through prayer in the morning.
Meanwhile, Fort McMurray Public School District superintendent Doug Nicholls says two-years out they acknowledge that there are several families and teachers still dramatically impacted by the wildfire.
“We know a lot of our families haven’t rebuilt, they’re still in process with some claims. We also know some of our students are still very stressed from the process even two years later.”
Nicholls says this isn’t a surprise to them as they were informed it would take three to five years for people to settle into pre-wildfire life.
He notes there will be low key activities in the school on May 3 with additional supports in place, but for the most part, it will be business as usual.
LISTEN: On this edition of Fort McMurray Matters, Mayor Don Scott discusses the two-year mark since the wildfire and evacuation, how far the community has come, and what the future holds #ymm #rmwb https://t.co/mWdVnjlvJG
— MIX 103.7 News (@Mix1037FMNews) May 3, 2018