As fire continues to burn northern Alberta and move into Saskatchewan, the people left in its wake are still trying to make sense of what happened.
Ian Wookey, a Chinook helicopter pilot with the Canadian Air Force, was part of the military response effort in Fort McMurray.
“Helping evacuees, helping get supplies up to northern isolated communities,” Wookey said.
They were staged in Conklin, Alta. two weeks ago; their primary task to assist the humanitarian efforts.
While the team was on standby to move people, they fortunately weren’t needed; instead, the efforts were focused on ferrying much-needed supplies.
“It was interesting, and obviously difficult, to see some of the damage done to some of the homes, but it was a difficult kind of experience flying around a fire that size,” he said.
He explained the biggest challenge for people in his position was dealing with the smoke.
“As an aviator, there’s not much you can do when flying into smoke; trying to fly over the smoke at times, trying to fly under the smoke at times,” he said.
Wookey said one mission up north had to turn around because conditions turned worse.
While stationed in Edmonton waiting further tasking, the pilot met some of the evacuees he said remained positive during such hard times.
Two weeks after leaving their city as it burned, people from Fort McMurray are also thinking about when they can go home.
The CJME Morning Show caught up with Jen McKenzie who is currently staying in Fort Saskatchewan. She says her own home has escaped the damage so far, but her parents were not so fortunate. She recently saw pictures showing the ruins of their house.
“It’s pretty devastating, I mean there was a hot tub and you can’t even tell there was a hot tub,” she said. “From the looks of things, everything has just collapsed into the basement and it’s just ash.”
Her father’s workshop seems to have escaped the worst of the flames, but the siding melted in the heat. She said her parents have lived in the area for about 30 years and she and her sister have stayed in Fort McMurray as well. She said it’s important to return because it’s their home.
“We’re all in this together so we’re going to go back and we’re going to rebuild,” she said.
McKenzie is anxious to get home, but for now she says she is lucky because the company she works for has temporarily relocated her job to Fort Saskatchewan.
“But it’s hard being away. My boyfriend and our sled dogs are in the Faucet area which is two hours away,” she said. “It’s helping, it’s bringing back some normalcy and the little bits we can get, we hold on to.”
While the house is not damaged, their dog run has been destroyed so they now have 43 sled dogs that have been displaced.
For evacuee Natasha Nicholson, the past few weeks have felt like a dream.
She said for the first few days all she could do was cry, but the shock value has started to wear off.
“Now I think I need to go back to see it to really believe that it is our home,” she said Thursday in an interview on Gormley.
Nicholson has moved her family around a lot since they left Fort McMurray. They started off in a hotel, then moved into a friend’s basement and are now renting a townhouse until they can move back home.
On Wednesday, the Alberta government released a fire map that allows residents the first up-close look at their properties.
“My house is still standing, I can see the kid’s swing set in the backyard, it looks perfect,” Nicholson said.
But she added that they don’t know what they will walk into when they are allowed to return in June.
“We’re hoping that the power wasn’t lost in our area, so maybe our fridge will be fine. But there are horror stories of what we could find in that refrigerator if the power has been out,” she said.
Realtor Jason Blair left Fort McMurray with his wife, toddler and newborn daughter.
Right now, they’re living out of a Calgary hotel room and Blair said shopping for groceries and baby clothes has been a challenge.
He said his two-year-old son is having the hardest time adjusting because not only is he away from his home and routine, he also has a new sibling to get used to.
Blair said his home is still standing, but he doubts they will head back on the tentative date of June 1 set by the government because a boil water advisory is still in place and the air quality is low.
“Right now, I just enjoy taking my son to the park or the playground and watching him run. That seems to get you through the day.”