Several times throughout this blog I have proudly called myself a “tar sand” baby. When people hear I’m from Fort McMurray some say “I’m sorry” to which I always reply “It was an amazing place to grow up and I miss it a lot.” I cried myself to sleep last night thinking about this amazing place I grew up in burning.

My wonderful grandpa moved his family up to Fort McMurray in the 70’s to start work at the plants and for most of my life my father worked at Suncor to support us. Almost everyone’s parents worked at Suncor or Syncrude. The Diversified buses that took people out to the plants were all over town and there was a lot of pride in the company your parents worked for. Kids would wear blue and gold and say “I’m wearing Suncor colours.” Yes, having a dad who worked shift work was hard. He would be gone for 14 hours and then sleep when he was home. We always looked forward to his long change when he would have two full weeks off to hang out. But this was how he supported his family! My grandpa retired from Suncor and his pension supported he & my grandma through their old age. Over the years when I saw all these articles and posts about “the dirty oilsands” and how bad they are for our environment I would think of ALL THE FAMILIES whose livelihoods depend on employment at those plants.

Fort McMurray was all about being outside!

Fort McMurray was an incredible place to grow up! We spent many years in a double wide trailer in Gregoire with the boreal forest as our backyard and I credit this upbringing to my love of the outdoors now. If we weren’t in school we were outside playing. Riding our bikes through the woods, picking wild raspberries, catching frogs, playing in the brook nearby- it was idyllic. Yes, the severe cold and short days in the winter sucked but that’s why we headed to Mac Island on a regular basis for ice skating.

After living in Gregoire so long we moved downtown, first to an area right next to Heritage Park and Lions Park and then to an area near the Clearwater River and my first elementary school. Do you know what was near both these homes? Beautiful rivers, parks, and greenbelts. From April-November we were always outside.

At Lion’s Park we used to swim in the Hangingstone River and hunt for fossils. I remember once getting in a “tarsand” fight because the tarsand isn’t just north of the City, it’s in the city too. We came home with spots of tar all over and it wouldn’t come off for a couple days. My mom was convinced we were going to get cancer.

Even the dirt cliff of Beacon Hill (the area 80% gone) has memories for me. There was one time my dad got it in his head to climb that dirt cliff with his little kids and it was steep. At one point I slipped and he grabbed my backpack before I fell way down.

Fort McMurray was all about strong connections with family & friends.

Part of my amazing memories of this place is all the family and friends. In a small town that is so isolated you become very close with everyone and I hug old church members I see today like they are long lost friends even if they are my parent’s age because we were such a tight knit community. My friends I grew up with throughout elementary, junior high, and that first year of high school are my closest friends and though we don’t see each other often we’re bonded for life.

It was a safe place! I remember my friends and I being 13  years old and walking up and down Franklin Avenue (the main street downtown) at 1 a.m. and never feeling uneasy. My siblings and I would play in the woods without any adult supervision and never felt unsafe.

Fort McMurray = My Dad

I also feel so strongly about this city because it’s where my dad is buried, in Abasand actually and most of that area is on fire. I think that’s a large part as to why I feel such a strong love for this City and why I’m sick over the fires. I know people have lost their houses which is the worst thing that could happen but I can’t help but think of my dads headstone charring, and the photo of him being burned beyond recognition and I tear up.

When we left Fort McMurray in 1999 to move to Seattle I was devastated. I hated the city and I missed the small town atmosphere and being surrounded by nature. I hated the rain and would have preferred -40C and sunny to the endless cloudy winter days in Washington. In the 11 years I was in Seattle almost all my friends moved south and I had less incentive to visit. I was up there last June for work and I can’t describe how it feels to see so much of the town the same as when I left it. The peace and happiness I felt being home was indescribable for those three days I was there.

As I read tweet after tweet last night and checked Facebook to make sure my few remaining friends who lived there were okay I felt ill. That town only has one road out and the pictures people took of that terrifying drive make you wonder how people made it. Some folks headed north to the few northern communities and oil camps but there is no way out from the Northern Part except by bush plane. Imagine feeling trapped and helpless like that.

I have to help! I don’t how but I do. I’ve already contacted some old friends in government to ask if they were going to send any relief up to help the Municipality of Wood Buffalo. I have four years experience working in a Municipal Emergency Coordination Centre and even though I plan to be a teach now I can still put those skills to good use. Or I could help with clean up, managing reentry- I don’t know.

I have to help the community that raised me!

So far I have donated money to Red Cross Alberta and I ask that anyone reading this do the same.

I’m keeping Fort McMurray and it’s residents in my thoughts and I ask that any readers of this blog please do the same. The wind will play a huge part in what happens today, they say the worst is not over yet.

10 thoughts on “Heartbroken for my Hometown of Fort McMurray

    1. I’ve been shock since photos started posting last night. So many people have fond memories of that City. This whole thing is surreal.

  1. I’m absolutely sick over everything that’s happening up north. You’re one of the first people who came to mind when the news broke. Knowing how highly you regard Ft McMurray makes me so sad for you, Rachel. The great thing about our province and country is that people are so eager to pull together during tough times!

    1. Yes- the support I’ve seen on Twitter is amazing! I just hope they get those fires under control before they do any more damage to that lovely town. I guess it’s a city now but it’ll always be a town to me.

  2. I am in shocked as well. Rachel, I was one of your mother’s bridesmaid when she married your dad. I spent my high school years in Fort Mac and still have many friends there. Let’s fast and pray that things change for the better.

    1. Glenna, it’s like I know you! I’ve grew up seeing you in pictures and my mom and Aunt Edie have told stories about you. It’s horrible to see what’s happening and I hope they can get it under control soon!

  3. I’m in tears reading this. I had not idea you grew up in Fort Mac. I couldn’t fall asleep last night and cried watching all the footage and while reading about all the good people out there hauling in gas, offering up their homes, etc. I can’t even imagine would it would feel like to watch your entire town burn down. What an utterly awful feeling and reality. Thanks for taking the time to share your positive memories of Fort Mac. I’ve never actually been there (grew up in Edmonton), although I’ve always wanted to see it. And you’re right, I think sometimes people forget that it’s more than just the place where the oil comes from. <3

    1. It’s too horrific and everyone I know from Fort Mac is rocked. I’ve always been an adamant supporter of Fort McMurray and was all too happy to get in arguments with people who told me it was a “dirty town”. It’s such a beautiful place full of amazing people. Whenever I see footage of those old, tall trees that stood there my entire life burning I get choked up. I just wish I could be more help beyond a Red Cross donation but I’m so far away!

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