Seville Kwan was one of the lucky ones, but she didn’t know it at the time. When the Alberta wildfire first sparked on May 1 just southwest of Fort McMurray, no one suspected how much it would change the landscape of this century-old community. Over the next few weeks, the blaze would consume nearly 600,000 hectares of city and forest, destroy 2,400 homes and businesses, displace more than 80,000 local residents and oil workers, and cost more than $3.5 billion on its way to becoming the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history.
No one could have seen this coming, or could have predicted the way it would change the character of Fort McMurray in the national consciousness. Long known for its importance as an urban service area for the Athabasca oil sands, Fort McMurray is something of an anti-oasis in the middle of one of the largest boreal forests in the world, a punching-bag for politicians, scientists, and environmentalists who know it as a major contributor to global warming.
But it’s also a community, and with a healthy population of itinerant workers from across the nation, a microcosm of Canadian culture. Kwan was born there, and after earning a Bachelor of Management degree from UBC’s Okanagan campus in 2009, she returned home to make that community a better place. As the Community Strategies Coordinator for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (the urban area that encompasses Fort McMurray), Seville’s job is programming local events and reminding her friends and neighbors there’s more to the area than just oil; this is a home they can be proud of.
That home came under threat on May 3, two days after the blaze began, when the flames reached town. “My co-workers noticed the fire in the neighbourhood in the south end of Fort McMurray,” says Kwan. “We tried not to think too much of it, that it was just another forest fire that happens normally in the summers.”
But over the next few hours, the fire escalated, leaping neighborhood to neighborhood. Eventually Kwan’s co-workers who lived closer to the fire began leaving work to pack up their homes and prepare for an evacuation. Kwan, who lives in the northern area of Timberlea, was one of the last to leave the office.
Normally a 10 minute drive, it took her more than an hour to get home to help her parents and brother pack. “I went to get gas twice,” she says, “but one station was closed and another had a lineup of probably four blocks long or so — I couldn’t see the end of the line.” With only a quarter tank of gas in her Volkswagen Tiguan, Kwan piled into her brother’s car and followed their parents north to escape the approaching flames. By then, the radio stations were unstaffed, broadcasting only a mandatory evacuation order.
“That really put things into perspective,” says Kwan. “If every radio station is unmanned, we should really start moving quicker.” With the highway south to Edmonton closed, they drove to the oil-worker camps two hours north, passing people who were parked on the side of the road and camping where they could.
“Really we had no idea what to do,” recalls Kwan. “Our only instruction was to go towards this one particular camp, but that was full, so the assumption was just to keep trying — to go from one camp to another camp to another camp.” Thanks to the kindness of other evacuees, they finally found a camp with space. “People who were already staying there offered up their rooms to us,” says Kwan. “They would sleep in their cars just so families could stay together.”
By this time, the inferno had spread to 10,000 hectares, and would soon grow so large it would develop its own weather system, sparking lightning and fire clouds. The highway south had temporarily reopened to evacuees, and Kwan decided to join a friend who was heading to Edmonton. “About seven o’clock in the morning we hit the road,” she recalls. “I did tell my parents and asked them to leave with us — just drive out and take our chances — but they were very content to stay where they were at until they got further word.”
Within a few hours, Kwan and her friend were safe and sound in Edmonton. Kwan rented a car and spent the next three weeks at her family’s condo, occasionally volunteering at the Edmonton evacuation center as the fire updates played out daily on the news. “I ran into a lot of people I knew,” she says. “Lots of hugs to go around. I think it’s nice to see a familiar face in that situation.” From satellite photos, she could tell that the blaze had not reached her neighbourhood, and her parents’ house — along with her car, still in the driveway — had been spared.
On May 29, just ahead of the authorities re-opening Fort McMurray to residents, Kwan went home to assist returning evacuees. As an employee of the Community Services Branch of Wood Buffalo, she and her coworkers helped direct people to the help they needed — everything from emotional support to filing insurance claims to cleaning the smell of smoke from their homes.
A few days later, Kwan returned her rental car at a temporary drop-off centre. As she waited for a friend to pick her up, she got a call she didn’t expect — the alumni UBC office was on the phone, informing her she had just won a 2016 Volkswagen Jetta, courtesy of Vancouver’s Cowell Auto Group, in a contest she had entered a few months earlier. The timing of the call was surreal, but welcome. “It was probably the best news I could have gotten that week.”
Over the following days and months, the mention of Fort McMurray slowly disappeared from the news cycle, but the town’s struggle was just beginning. There is a housing shortage, and many local businesses have yet to reopen. But the national response had been overwhelming. Emergency workers from around the world had travelled to Alberta to help, and the Red Cross raised nearly $300 million for its recovery effort. During the fire, residents from surrounding communities actually drove towards the fire, bringing water, diapers, fuel, and other necessities to the fleeing residents who were trapped on the highway.
The country seemed almost unified in seeing Fort McMurray from a new perspective. “[There are] a lot of assumptions about Fort McMurray,” says Kwan,“[that] it’s just an oil town, and people are just there to work — but if anything the wildfire created a bigger sense of community. We all kind of bonded. We helped each other out.”
Is Economic Diversification the Key to Alberta’s Future?
Published on June 9, 2016
For decades, Alberta’s fortunes have been closely tied to the global price of oil. With 15 per cent of the province’s employment being in the oil and gas sector and estimates that each of these jobs drives two indirect jobs, it is clear that when this sector is struggling, the entire economy feels the effects. In a world where fossil fuels are increasingly stigmatized and some are expensive to produce, should Alberta focus heavily on diversifying its economy in the months and years ahead? How can the province recover and find the opportunities in this transformation?