When the more than 80,000 people fled Fort McMurray on May 3, amber flames and thick smoke framed Highway 63. On their return though, the highway was decorated with words of encouragement.
Six billboards – and a number of other signs – can be clearly seen as residents make their way back into the city one month after wildfire forced them out.
“Together we will rebuild,” one reads. “Safe. Resilient. Together,” reads another.
Some of the signs are perched in a plot of fire-scorched land. Others sit in the middle of green grass. All of them display simple messages of support.
“We want people coming into town to read these billboards and know that they were designed so that we can speak directly to people as they come into town,” Robin Smith, with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, explained. “So they know we’re very proud of them and we’re very happy to have them home again.”
Some of the messages were taken from phrases commonly heard from officials during the disaster and immediate emergency response. For instance, Fire Chief Darby Allen was known to often say: “We are here. We are strong.”
“When I think back about the experience of being here and watching our people leave in a calm and caring manner and then come back in a respectful orderly manner, I think ‘We are here. We are strong’ is one of the most meaningful sentiments you can use to describe this community,” Smith said.
A team with the municipality was brainstorming ways to make returning residents feel welcome and when staff learned they had access to a number a billboards, their minds were made up.
“Across the country, we’ve seen national media, we’ve seen politicians, we’ve seen other Canadians talk about the demeanor of our residents as they left,” Smith explained.
Watch below: The people behind Fort McMurray’s ‘Welcome Bridge’
“When these evacuation orders came, they were calm, they were respectful, they helped each other. There was no panic, there was no mad dash to get out of town,” he added.
“This is a thank you to them and a welcome back.”
WATCH: Firefighters welcome home residents of Fort McMurray after wildfire