Return to Fort McMurray is just the beginning

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President's Message with photo of Jerry Dias

This was published in the Huffington Post Wednesday June 1, 2016.

The first few residents of Fort McMurray, including Unifor members, begin returning to their homes this week, with the real work of their ordeal still lying ahead of them.

Forced to flee four weeks ago in the face of a wild fire gone out of control, more than 88,000 people have found shelter in temporary accommodations set in civic centres and hockey rinks, in hotels or with friends and family since the fires pushed them from their homes.

Some were even forced to flee a second time when the fires continued to spread, threatening the places they thought would be safe haven.

These have been difficult weeks as families settled into temporary accommodations, unsure what the future held, whether they had homes or jobs to return to, and relying on the kindness of others just to get by.

This week’s return is a welcome end to the wait for things to begin turning around.

But it also a beginning – the very important beginning to the rebuilding of their vibrant community. I have met regularly – including just this week – with Unifor members from Fort McMurray, the provincial government and Suncor officials about the return, and the challenges to be faced.

Unifor is committed to helping all of Fort McMurray, not just our members, get back on its feet, including sponsoring air quality testing equipment to help ensure the safety of workers and the entire community.

The emotions of the last few weeks will continue to run high as resident begin the rebuilding process.

Returning families will be watching for their neighbours to see which, if any, have made the difficult decision to start rebuilding their lives somewhere else. They’ll no doubt be sad to see some familiar faces not returning, but will likely find it hard to blame them.

The road ahead, after all, will be difficult. Much of the city has been burned to the ground – though, thankfully, not nearly as much as had been feared – and much rebuilding remains.

At the city’s only hospital, for example, only the emergency department is open and limited services are available. The rest of the hospital won’t be open until after June 21. There will be no garbage pickup until June 16, and schools won’t reopen until September – so children must finish this school year elsewhere.

There will be no commercial flights in or out of Fort McMurray until June 10, and there will be a limited number of stores open in the city – and they are expected to have short supplies. An emphasis has been placed on such important businesses as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies.

And for some 2,000 more residents whose homes are still standing, the toxic residue from the fires has left their homes uninhabitable. Tests done near their homes have shown that ash and soil in the area contain such substances as arsenic and other heavy metals.

The heartbreak felt by residents such as Jessica Rejman, whose home in the city’s Waterways neighbourhood is still standing but declared unsafe, takes on a new kind of poignancy as they look at their seemingly unscathed homes, but can’t return. "If you look at the whole block, our homes look OK," she told the CBC. "There doesn't look like there is anything wrong with them."

Waterways is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray. Many of the building standards and materials used in construction predate today’s safety measures. That was fine as long at the buildings were standing. But once the fires started, the toxins in those materials seeped out into the soil.

A few doors away from Rejman’s homes, entire houses, those of her neighbours and friends, are gone. That is the heartbreaking story for too many residents. They left a family home behind when they were forced to evacuate, and now return to an empty lot.

Health officials are warning parents not to let their children play in the ashes, as tempting as it might be, and to clean any toys thoroughly to ensure their children don’t pick up any toxins.

This is their new reality.

These fires changed Fort McMurray. Much of it will have to be rebuilt, but her residents will no doubt never look at the forests surrounding the community the same way again, nor listen to reports of forest fires the same way.

But the spirit that drove Fort McMurray to grow from a small town to a rough and tumble boom town to a great city in which to raise a family is alive and well and will carry its residents along the difficult road ahead. And the generosity of Canadians that has helped them through this difficult month will continue.

Of that, I have no doubt.