It’s been 20 months since families fled Fort McMurray as flames chased them from their homes. But even in the dead of winter, construction to rebuild what the fire took is well underway.
Wood Buffalo’s new Mayor Don Scott said the municipality has been lobbying insurance companies to help residents get back home.
“The Insurance Bureau of Canada has indicated to me that 90 per cent of their claims have been resolved. I know that’s progress, but of course it’s the 10 per cent. The toughest claims, the toughest 10 per cent that haven’t been resolved. So there’s a lot of work to be done.”
With the two-year anniversary of the May 2016 wildfire looming ever closer, Scott wishes more homes were already rebuilt or repaired.
“When people ask me how I feel about the rebuild, I always say I’m dissatisfied because I’m always wanting more. I always want to see the bar moved ahead,” he said.
Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways all look different now, they’re taking shape once more.
“When you drive through some of the neighbourhoods that were impacted by the fire, you can definitely see building going on. You can definitely see progress. It’s great to see,” Scott said.
That two-year mark is a key point in most house insurance claims. The mayor wants to make sure residents are aware of their rights.
“I’m encouraging as many people as possible to go see legal counsel. Almost every law firm in Fort McMurray that I’m aware of offers a free half-hour consultation.”
There’s also work to be done without hammers and saws – on mental health.
“I heard from young people who were telling me that their friends were still struggling with post-fire experience and mental health issues related to the fire and I’ve passed that along to others that I think can connect them to the help that they need.”
Scott is also trying to ensure the municipality’s firefighters have proper supports to deal with things like PTSD.
Then there’s the safety side. Fort McMurray now has numerous “FireSmart” signs all over the city. The program looks at ways to manage the wildfire risk. In Fort McMurray, that means cutting down trees that are too close to homes, creating buffer zones around neighbourhoods.
On Tuesday night, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo approved a 15-point, five-year Wildfire Mitigation Strategy, which is meant to help create a more robust community FireSmart program.
“We’re committed to working with residents and stakeholders as we weave FireSmart into the fabric of our community,” said fire chief Jody Butz.
The Wildfire Mitigation Strategy outlines that vegetation management has already been completed on more than 1,300 hectares across the region. It proposes that an additional 867 hectares be treated.
But not everyone is in favour of clearing away parts of the forest.
“There is some push back. Some of the people are concerned that in certain areas the trees are being cut down, or the shrubbery behind their houses. But we want to make sure the neighbourhoods are as safe as possible going forward.”
Scott has asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Rachel Notley to pay another visit to Wood Buffalo. Both came up after the wildfires.
“I think the community needs to see that they’re still paying attention to the region. This is a significant region economically for the entire country.”
He said it could still be a couple more years before the rebuild is complete.
“I know families are moving into their homes, and that’s great. We need a lot more of that.”