The uncertain future of Canada's wildfire diaspora

Over 80,000 Fort McMurray residents have been forced to flee their houses and nobody knows what they will come back to.


    Fort McMurray, Canada's oil capital, is a ghost town today.

    More than 80,000 residents of the city and its environs have fled a gargantuan wildfire that leapt over rivers and roads and marched into their neighbourhoods.

    Oil workers, store clerks, business owners, teachers, medical personnel and children are now scattered around evacuee centres in the nearby cities of Edmonton and Calgary, and across Canada.

    They have become a diaspora.

    The fire that drove them away is gradually burning its way into uninhabited forest, where few, if any people live.

    Cooler weather and showers have slowed its advance and plans are being drawn up to send damage-assessment teams into the exclusion zone.

    Canada wildfire: Firefighters ‘helped by Mother Nature’

    But what of that diaspora? Who are they and when might they return?

    Last week, at the main evacuation centre in Edmonton, I walked through the halls and tried to count the number of languages I was hearing: Somali, Swahili, Kurdish, Hausa, Spanish, Serbo-Croat, Turkish, Romanian, Albanian, Arabic and Italian.

    I lost count after 30.

    Fort McMurray was a huge magnet for immigrants to Canada. It had jobs, opportunities and was welcoming to newcomers.

    I spoke to Susan, who was from Kenya. She stood outside a set of glass doors with her three-year-old daughter, Sarah.

    "We have us: My husband, me and her," she told me, smiling and gesturing towards the little girl.

    "Everything else is gone. Our house, our possessions, everything we worked for. All burned."

    Behind the smile, her eyes betrayed deep concern for a future far from clear.

    Sarah spotted someone in a clown suit, tying balloons into shapes and surrounded by happy kids.

    She tugged her mother's hand and the two walked away.

    Ahmed from Somalia was an oil worker. He had been in Fort McMurray for several years and was sending money back to Toronto where his family lived. 

    READ MORE: State of emergency as fire engulfs Canadian city

    "I didn't live in a house, I had an apartment and I don't think it got burned down," he said.

    "But I don't know about my job. No one can tell me when I can go back to work. I might go back to Toronto."

    He had left Canada's largest city because the jobs there didn't pay enough. Generous salaries in the oil patch went a long way for his family of four, 2,600km away.

    Fort McMurray drew in people from all across Canada, especially the economically challenged Atlantic province of Newfoundland.

    They speak with a distinct accent, a bit of Ireland, a bit of the west of England. North America meets Europe's Celtic fringe.

    "Twenty years. Twenty years, it's been," said a man who didn't want his name used in press coverage while his insurance claims were being prepared.

    "I watched Fort Mac grow and now I've seen it burn."

    The wildfires have cut Canada's vast oil sands output in half [AP]

    He was using the city's nickname. Some use it affectionately, like the man from Newfoundland.

    To others, it was a pejorative, a putdown of a place perceived as a boomtown, with economy driven by the "dirty oil" dug from the tar sands of the Athabasca River valley.

    The narrative outside of the community might best be summed up in a country and western song called Old Fort Mac.

    Ain't goin' back 

    To Old Fort Mac

    No matter how much they pay

    You can live and work in Old Fort Mac

    But there nowhere to stay, ain't nowhere to stay

    In other verses, the song says you can make a lot of money there but there's nothing to spend it on except drugs, alcohol and prostitution. It's funny but mean.

    That's the image of Fort McMurray put across in many media portraits. Expensive, full of young men with pockets full of gold, living the high life between shifts digging carbon from the soil.

    It may once have been true. But new Fort Mac, before the fire, was a different sort of place: full of families, comfortably multicultural and, thanks to lower oil prices, a lot less expensive than it used to be.

    Soon, officials promise, they'll work out when people can return to their homes, or sift through rubble and see if anything remains.

    There remains no timeline in place for getting Fort McMurray's 88,000 inhabitants back to their home town [Reuters]

    The local MP, an ebullient Conservative called David Yurdiga, says things may not be as bad as they seem.

    He was allowed across police lines several days after the evacuation.

    "I'd say 80 percent of the town looks OK," he said. "Our infrastructure, our schools, the hospital, major buildings, they're all untouched. If you stand in downtown, you can't tell there's been a major fire in other places."

    Among the diaspora, those words were well-received.

    I relayed them to Peter from Taiwan, who has lived with his parents in Fort McMurray for five years. We were having dinner in an evacuee camp 200km away. Peter had fled there after convincing his 80-year-old father not to stay behind as the flames reached the end of their street.

    The old man wanted to guard their possessions from looters.

    "I spent two hours getting him to come with us. It was hot, so hot. But then he came. I don't know what happened after that. But maybe, just maybe, we still have a house. It must be OK," he said before turning away to look out of the window.

    All diasporas are the same, it seems. Hope is what you cling on to.

    February shatters global temperature records

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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