Speaking in Fort McMurray one year after the wildfire forced a massive evacuation, Alberta’s premier called Wednesday “a sombre anniversary” while the region’s mayor said it was also a time to “reflect on the remarkable experiences of the past year.”
Community events were quiet and respectful — something the region’s officials heard was how residents wanted to mark the day.
“When you have a milestone event like this one, the importance of recounting the progress that’s actually being made is helpful in some people’s recovery, ignoring the date entirely for some people who just don’t want to face it as a reminder is another thing that’s important to respect,” Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said. “So, the low-key events that we have staged down at MacDonald Island are supportive of the desires of the community.
“To offer these different things, whether it’s spiritual or cultural or artistic or yoga at five in the morning… Everybody needs to do their own thing to mark this day.”
Premier Rachel Notley also noted the day was one to mourn the loss of two young people killed in a crash on Highway 881, fleeing the fires: Emily Ryan, 15, and Aaron Hodgson, 19.
READ MORE: Fort McMurray triplet killed fleeing fires was daughter of deputy fire chief
“We also remember all that the fire took from people: their homes, their baby photos and all the cherished belongings that helped to anchor so many cherished memories.”
Watch below: Premier Rachel Notley marks 1 year since Fort McMurray wildfire: ‘This is a very difficult day’
“This is also an opportunity to extend our gratitude to our brave emergency responders, whether they were from Alberta or came to help from beyond our borders.”
The premier said everywhere she goes, she is asked about Fort McMurray.
“Everywhere, the sentiment is the same… Your province is very, very proud of you. People from the U.S. to China to Japan are inspired by the bravery, strength and resilience this community did show and continues to show.
“Albertans have long known the people of Fort McMurray are as caring and resilient as they come,” Notley said. “The evacuation proved that to the world.”
READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire victims praise Canadian Red Cross’ help: ‘Thank you to the nation’
Blake also spoke about how overwhelmed she was by the support of Canadians, through the Red Cross, to help people that were complete strangers.
“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” the mayor said.
“To all the Canadians from coast to coast to coast who opened their hearts and homes to us, we will forever be in your debt. During the darkest time in our history, these overwhelming acts of kindness and compassion sustained us.”
“Strangers housed us, fed us, clothed us, even filled our tanks with gas… Our entire community has been personally touched.”
Watch below: Mayor Melissa Blake marks 1 year since Fort McMurray wildfire
Roughly 20 per cent of the community has decided not to return to Fort McMurray since the fire. However, Notley said the school population showed a 94 per cent retention rate as of September.
When asked about calls for another access route out of the city, the premier said the transportation ministry was working with the municipality on possible options. The Alberta government has already dedicated $5 million towards a feasibility study, with the municipality also putting in $5 million.
“That’s the first step,” Notley said, adding she anticipates the study will begin “very soon.”
Notley and Blake were joined by several emergency officials, including the municipality’s new fire chief, RCMP supervisor, and members of the Recovery Task Force.
READ MORE: ‘We pulled it off’: Suncor airport supervisor recounts converting hangar into hospital 1 year after Fort McMurray wildfire
Both speakers stressed the importance of reaching out for help processing emotions and grief in the wake of the disaster.
“I’ve spoken to many residents who are dreading this day,” Blake said. “Others will want to mark it privately.
“Mental health matters and it is OK to reach out.”
Watch below: Family of teens killed fleeing Fort McMurray wildfire reflects on past year
READ MORE: ‘It’s eerie’: Thousands of residents return home after Fort McMurray wildfire
Notley and Blake reiterated that progress is being made but there is still a long road ahead.
“Yes we have come a long way and it’s encouraging to see,” Blake said. “But it’s still early days.”
“We know the journey is not over,” Notley added. “We are still with you.
“Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray, you are strong.”
For complete coverage of Fort McMurray: The Road Back, click here.
Watch below: Fort McMurray wildfire one year later: hear from residents and the premier