On the highway in front of the car: a never-ending stream of vehicles slowly inching forward. In the rearview mirror: a wall of fire from the scorched Albertan earth reaching up to mix with black clouds of swirling ash.
A couple weeks ago, the northern Alberta oil-town of Fort McMurray was ravaged by a wildfire that forced over 90,000 people to evacuate their homes.
Fort McMurray has been growing steadily since the 1990’s – it includes a sizeable permanent population as well as temporary residents. Some estimates measure the city’s shadow population at around 20% of the town’s total inhabitants, although it’s a number that’s constantly in flux given the ebb and flow of itinerant workers..
No matter how many people live and work in Fort McMurray, it’s a town that, for a week at least in May of 2016, only had one direction.
Leaving It All Behind
It’s human nature to take our possessions for granted. It’s alright, we all do it – but it’s situations like the Fort McMurray wildfire that help us re-achieve perspective. Our homes are where we plant our roots. Our vehicles transport us and our most prized possessions (our families) to and fro.
With the mass exodus out of Fort McMurray, people left behind much more than toys, appliances, and TV’s – they were forced to abandon the memories they’d spent years building in a town that welcomed them from all over the world.
People left behind their jobs. Their life’s work. Their offices. Their homes away from home.
Certainly, the loss of one’s home cuts deepest, but it’s the tiny cuts from a million other losses that stings as well.
I imagine heavy machines left to the mercy of the flames on abandoned job-sites. The outskirts of Fort McMurray are home to work camps that house thousands of men and women. Fortunately the people got out, but the work, the equipment – that’s all gone.
The Nature of Hard Work
There are plenty of publications that will deliver the stories of people affected by the Fort McMurray wildfire in the years to come. It’s not our job here on the Viking blog to pretend we’re something we’re not: a newspaper or magazine.
But when a blue collar town goes up in flames, it hurts, even here on the sidelines. The nature of our work reminds us of the difficulty these men and women are going to have when it comes to rebuilding not only their homes, but their livelihoods. Fort Mac is the centre of petroleum production in Canada. Veins of black gold flow from this boomtown all over the world. It takes a lot of planning and hard work to extract and refine oil so it’s useful for the rest of the world – we’ve all been fortunate that the people working in northern Alberta possess these qualities in spades.
Home For Some, Heartland For Many
As Fort McMurray’s oilsands developed and attracted people from all over the world, it started to become clear that this was a place where you could leave behind your past and look forward to a lucrative future. Fort McMurray offered opportunity for anyone unafraid of using their hands to provide for themselves or their families. The oil industry, and the drilling sector in particular, is not elitist. The values of hard work, determination, and motivation are welcomed here, and not even a devastating brush with an apocalyptic fire can burn those qualities away.
Fort McMurray is home to oil rig workers. Skilled tradespeople. Small business owners. Grocery store clerks. Bankers. Wait staff. Farmers. Forestry specialists. Original equipment manufacturers.
Fort Mac is home to families and people who’ve come to put their skill to good use and subcontractors who started with nothing and built a life for themselves.
For now, that life is on hold and it’s tough to say what will be waiting when everyone goes back.
And if we have to start over again, so be it. Bring it on.