Out of the Ashes

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 08, 2016 12:00 AM
Deegan Greeley was born in Cold Lake, AB, during Fort McMurray's wildfire evacuation.

It's been months since the flames ravaging Fort McMurray engulfed us all. Glued to the shocking media footage pouring from the region, the entire nation prayed for the safety of residents while mourning their untold losses. On the other side of the country, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians watched in particular shock and horror as a mass exodus of cars and trucks, even a woman on horseback, fled the community where so many of our own sons and daughters, friends and family make their homes and raise their children. 

We didn't know it then, but the Fort McMurray wildfire would burn out of control for two months, becoming the costliest insured disaster in Canadian history. Approximately 2,400 homes and buildings burned - about 10 to 15 per cent of the municipality - and entire neighbourhoods were flattened as the fire swept through more than half a million hectares. Mercifully, no lives were lost as a direct result of the flames.

While the fire is no longer hogging national headlines as it once did, it's still burned into the memories of the approximately 90,000 people who lived through the disaster. Among them are Stacey Greeley, Jenelle Burton and Deanne Beck - three young Fort McMurray mothers originally from Newfoundland and Labrador who fled the flames with young children in tow (and one on the way). They recently recalled their emotional returns to the community, the kindness and compassion they’ve witnessed, and how they’re still coming to terms with what happened in their own backyards. 

Stacey’s Story

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Derrick, Deegan and Stacey Greeley

Stacey Greeley, originally of Queen’s Cove, Trinity Bay, returned to a whole new way of life - in more ways than one - when she headed back to Fort McMurray six weeks after fleeing her burning neighbourhood. She left 38 weeks pregnant and came back a new mom of baby boy Deegan. 

“Once he was here I just wanted to be home, that’s all I could think about, I want to be home, I want to be home,” says Stacey, who gave birth while evacuated in Cold Lake, four hours from Fort McMurray. “It wasn’t what I expected to have to go through bringing our first child into the world.”

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On May 3, Stacey had been enjoying one of her last days on the job before maternity leave when the wildfire leapt the Athabasca River just south of her home in the Fort McMurray neighbourhood of Wood Buffalo, prompting evacuation. She’d had a baby shower the previous week, and with only a few preparations left, she was looking forward to relaxing ahead of her first child’s arrival - due May 22.  

“I just thought we were going to be gone for a couple of nights and we’d be back, no big deal. So we didn’t grab anything for [the baby], we didn’t grab a car seat, nothing,” says Stacey.

Luckily, the residents of Cold Lake - where they stayed with friends and eventually rented a place of their own - welcomed the couple with open arms, providing them with many of the essentials they’d left behind. 

“I don’t know if somebody said that we were coming or what, but we had so much help. My husband packed my bags and he didn’t pack any maternity clothes, so when I opened my suitcase I didn’t have anything that fit me,” says Stacey. “Within two days we were there, I had a full wardrobe again of maternity clothes…clothes for [the baby], we had a bassinet given to us, we had a car seat given to us, a stroller.” Stacey says it was overwhelming to be the recipient of such compassion from complete strangers. 

So shortly after returning to Fort McMurray, where her home received only minor damage, Stacey found a way to pay that kindness forward. She located a couple expecting a baby of their own, who’d lost everything in the fire, through the Facebook page “YMM Helping Others,” and arranged to meet with them and pass on the items that were so generously given to her in her time of need.

“They’d just come back to town, they were living in a camper,” says Stacey. “It was super emotional. She was so grateful, just to have strangers reach out to them.”

Stacey says the whole ordeal has left her feeling more thankful in general, and more aware of what’s truly important to her.

“I’m very appreciative of my family, not that I wasn’t before, but I have a different outlook on life. Things can be taken away from you in a matter of seconds - but at the same time, if we did lose our house it is only material things,” says Stacey. “I know it would be hard to come back and have to rebuild everything, but as long as I did have my family then that’s all that really matters to me.”

And baby Deegan is settling nicely into life in Fort McMurray, blissfully unaware of the tumultuous circumstances surrounding his birth. 

“He’s so happy, his expressions are priceless,” says Stacey. “He’s the best.” 

Deanne’s Story

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Deanne, Logan and Tyler Beck

Talking about the fires that ravaged the place she’s called home for six years still brings a flood of emotion for St. Lawrence-native Deanne Beck. For her, the hardest part of returning to Fort McMurray following the wildfire is comprehending the plight of all those who have no houses to come home to. 

While Deanne’s home stands unscathed, she counts a close friend and two colleagues among those who have lost everything. And as of Downhome press time in August, her brother was among many residents who still hadn’t been able to return to his severely damaged house. Deanne remembers watching his neighbourhood go up in flames on evacuation day, driving past it as she and her family fled the community. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Deanne. “No one expected to lose as much as we did. Yes, we saved 80 per cent of the city, but that 20 per cent - that’s a lot. That’s thousands of homes lost, thousands of lives that are uprooted.”

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During the evacuation period, the Becks spent a week in a hotel in Edmonton before heading for home - their other home: Newfoundland, where their hometown received them with open arms. 

“With the unfortunate circumstances it was actually a very nice holiday,” says Deanne. In particular, her son, 16-month-old Logan, had the time of his life - taking advantage of the impromptu vacation to catch fish, play with his cousins and go for a ride in a fire truck. Burin Peninsula Brighter Futures, a non-profit organization, provided clothes for the tyke (who arrived with nothing but shorts and T-shirts) as well as a playpen for him to sleep in. When it came time to head back to Fort McMurray after five weeks away, the Red Cross covered the cost of the family’s airfare.

“It was awesome,” says Deanne, the words catching in her throat.

In addition to being thankful for the support they received in Newfoundland, Deanne is also extremely grateful to the first responders who risked their own lives to ensure tens of thousands of evacuees escaped the wildfire safely.

“They were standing in the streets when the flames were on the side of the road,” says Deanne. “I’m not going to lie, it was madness; but it was madness that worked.”

The family has plans to come back to Newfoundland this month, for a holiday under happier circumstances. 

Jenelle’s Story
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Matt, Jenelle and Kooper Burton

When Jenelle Burton, her husband, Matt, and their six-month-old son, Kooper, returned to Fort McMurray following the evacuation, she didn’t recognize the charred place.

“I didn’t know what part of town I was in, no idea,” says Jenelle, who hails from Leading Tickles but has been living in Fort McMurray for five years.

“I always thought I couldn’t wait to get out of Fort McMurray to move back home, but once I was forced out of the city where everything I owned was, my thoughts changed on that. I didn’t know how good I had it here until I couldn’t get back,” says Jenelle, who returned to Leading Tickles for two months during the uncertain time.

Recalling evacuation day, Jenelle says she thought nothing of the ashes falling from the sky over her Timberlea neighbourhood - a fairly typical occurrence during wildfire-prone Alberta summers. But since her harrowing escape from Fort McMurray with her son (her husband was out of town at the time) she says she’s much more on guard.

“Even when we were back home in [Leading Tickles], I was thinking, ‘If there was a fire that started here, how would we get out?’ I’m always thinking about how we’re going to get out,” says Jenelle. “If you smell smoke outside now, you’re out there for the longest time, just seeing where it’s coming from.”

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Kooper enjoyed his time in Leading Tickles during the evacuation.

Speaking to Downhome from Fort McMurray in August, Jenelle says things are far from back to normal. While her home received only minor damage, she says barricades still prevent entry to the hardest hit areas, many residents have yet to return to the region and several businesses remain closed. Yet there is an unmistakeable sense of community and solidarity. 

“We always helped each other out in the community, but it’s more so now,” says Jenelle. “Online we have this buy and sell, and most people are giving things away instead of selling.”

And there are signs, however tiny, that make her hopeful for the future.

“It’s starting to build up again now. It’s not so burnt; there’s grass growing. Makes it feel more like home.” - By Ashley Miller