On tour of a burned-out Fort McMurray

On tour in Fort Mac to bear eyewitness to what the massive wildfire wrought
Fort McMurray (Chris Bolin photo)

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Turning onto Prospect Drive to visit the most devastated neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, the first striking scene is the shopping plaza that just opened two years ago. The Save On Foods, Canadian Brew House, and its not one but two liquor stores—all untouched by disaster, the complex’s walls black and grey by design.

A few metres away on Sandstone Lane, fire had chewed through the back half of a corner house. Beyond that property’s backyard was another, grimmer, vista of black and grey. Row upon row of wreckage, the steel frames of cars and even less of the places those vehicles’ drivers used to come home to, to cook dinners and watch hockey games and read in their beds.

A ‘For sale’ sign was tattered and curled, as smoke wisps rose slowly from the charred ruins behind it. The shell of a car was lifted onto its side, perhaps by one of the bulldozers that appeared to come in after the flames destroyed entire blocks. Large, fresh tire treads were carved into many yards and overtop foundations, creating a huge mess of earth and rubble.

Related: How big is the Fort McMurray fire? 

The decorative stone edges around a series of house garages remained, in whole or part, now like broken and empty picture frames, some with melted remains of garage doors hung up by guide rails.

We could see few visible vestiges of the family belongings left behind. In one backyard, a trampoline was still there to jump on, and a few doors down a red kiddie Corvette was upside down, but appeared otherwise fine. A glass bus shelter, and others like it in the worst-hit areas, remained intact. A few wooden fence posts were merely singed.

Smouldering woods were hundreds of metres away, but it smelled like we were sitting next to a campfire.

With the help of guides authorized to be in the city, Maclean’s visited this part of Timberlea and much of Fort McMurray on Friday to bear eyewitness to what the massive wildfire had wrought, and how firefighters’ efforts were helping protect much of this evacuated city of more than 83,000 residents.

In some areas it was hard to tell easily what the winds and flame patterns spared, and what first responders had helped secure. Around the edges of this charred neighbourhood were a few homes that survived with only their vinyl siding warped, and a row of houses on Siltstone Place were okay, along with a new four-storey apartment building with its letter-board advertising: “Rental units for sale,” and barbecues and camping chairs untouched on the balconies.

That half-gone house on Sandstone Lane is a more likely signal of the Fort McMurray firefighters’ fight: the municipality had said on the morning of May 5 they were able to protect the properties on the other side of Confederation Way, a key artery that loops around the communities of Timberlea and Thickwood, both largely intact and which together hold about two-thirds of Fort McMurray’s population.

Related: Random acts of kindness around the Fort McMurray fire 

It’s ghoulishly quiet and otherwise ordinary in most of those neighbourhoods. A few streets away from Prospect’s carnage, houses still have their black garbage and blue recycling bins lined up outside for collection day. School flags flutter in the mercifully gentle wind, and traffic lights flash a constant yellow. One side of disturbance is off in the massive development’s southeast corner, where heavy equipment had torn down trees on one side of Confederation to protect the homes of Dickinsfield on the other side.

Driving south of Thickwood, the grassy expanse of overpasses is fine, along with the water treatment plant along the Athabasca River, one of the pieces of critical urban infrastructure crews had protected. After water bombers dropped payloads on the provincial building at the urban fire’s Tuesday peak, its towers and the rest of downtown is secure. A drive up Franklin Avenue, downtown’s main drag, is the same as it ever was, except for an inflatable tube man atop one building that now droops down from the roof.

Follow the main street and we end up at MacDonald Island Park, which had been an evacuee reception centre in the fire’s earlier hours and now serves as the nerve centre for firefighter crews from around Alberta. Crews from Fort Mac mingled with those from Edmonton, Leduc and Crossfield. They ate barbecue, carried toiletry kits into the building, exchanged hugs. A crowd was gathering around one firefighter who had in his lap a black cat with white paws; he fed the recovered pet water from a styrofoam cup, and stroked its fur with his leather-gloved hands.

Down the hill from Highway 63 was the utter carnage of Waterways, the city’s oldest neighbourhood. Some of the oldest houses in this continually booming town had sat there, as had the home of Brian Jean, leader of Alberta’s Wildrose opposition party.

Related reading: Want to help Fort McMurray? Here’s how. 

South across a valley sits the undamaged neighbourhood Gregoire, though our guide worried that smoke down there might lead to disaster later. Up the hills and on the highway’s opposite side sat the ruins of Abasand and Beacon Hill.

Just beyond the welcome sign for Beacon Hill, an untouched Century 21 sale sign was promoting nothing behind it. Further down, a 1970s-style long grey sedan was fine a few metres in front of a destroyed pickup truck that had been stored in a garage that no longer exists. Google Street View shows houses in red and white and beige. Friday, there was nothing. Concrete steps led to a void. Aluminum car parts had become rivulets of silver down a driveway. The fire spared little on Beacon Hill’s southern streets, but seemed to have a fondness for gardening effects. A stack of topsoil or manure bags sat piled on one property, and 20 homes over a green metal patio table still held four undamaged plastic flower pots, along with a blue watering can with a smiley-faced sunflower as the spout. The north edge of Beacon Hill lays in ruins as well, but in the community’s middle the schools were left standing.

We left the city past the destroyed Super 8 Hotel and Flying J gas station, black smoke lifting from small fires in the regional landfill, and several abandoned cars on the roadside flanked by blackened grass. Low-flying planes flew overhead by a bloodshot sun to survey forest damage. The smoke was getting heavy enough that RCMP officers directing and halting traffic had to wear gas masks.

Maclean’s is also answering every possible question you may have on the Fort Mac fire in our Fort McMurray FAQ file. Read all our stories here.