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What We Take and What We Leave Behind: Memorializing Abasand June 2016-August 2016

Peter Fortna
BY Peter Fortna
(2 votes)

It was a cold and rainy day when I returned to Fort McMurray.  It was June 9, 2016, a few days after the First Responders, on First Responders Way, had welcomed back the first community members who still had homes to go back to.  I was not one of those lucky ones; my home in Abasand was lost on May 3, 2017.  Pain, heartache, fear—the range of emotions experienced that day are hard to describe, the smell of the freshly applied tactifier mixed with the ash filling my nostrils, my eyes staring through space where neighbours’ houses once stood. 

As days turned to months, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the area, using my special “total loss” status and MacDonald Island coloured wristband to return to the rubble that was my home.  On my second visit I took my newly purchased camera and began to take pictures of the neighbourhood, documenting what was left behind.

 For those of us who experienced total loss, the scene of the fire became something of a graveyard, the place where we came together to commemorate and take stock of what was behind the blue fences: twisted metal, lonely brick fireplace columns, streams of frozen aluminum flowing into the street.  By mid-June, total-lossers were provided the opportunity to “sift” through their remains, searching for the jewelry, coins, ceramics, Christmas ornaments, or anything that could survive the 1,000–degree ovens that our homes became between May 2 and 5.  Nearly everyone found something. For me, it was a teapot made by someone very special. The pot’s lid also survived, but it was so fragile that it broke in half when displayed on a temporary shelf in Timberlea.  Not everything that was sifted was taken.  Piles of scorched ceramics, tools, coins, buttons, and pots and pans littered the fronts of many homes, reminders about the choices that we made—what we chose to take; what we chose to leave behind.  They created temporary markers, seared with the pain felt by those of us who lost everything.  Some Abasanders memorialized their loss in short messages of hope and aspiration: “We will miss you 250,” written on old door keys; “Troy, Krista, Jacob, Ben, we love 167,” a message left for children too young to remember “the Beast”; “Roger & Irene will Rebuild 109,” letting everyone else with total-loss wristbands know that Roger and Irene intended to come home.   Others were not so positive, with expressions of loss and pain scrawled variously on realtor’s signs and meticulously placed on uninsured lots.  Bulldozers and excavators would soon erase monuments of hope and of pain: a slate wiped clean to be transformed into a new neighbourhood with new homes and in some cases new neighbours.       

 These photographs show some of what I felt—some of what we felt—in those three months after the fire.  I know many of these photos will be hard to look at, as they document a transformation inscribed on the land that reshaped our community’s past, present, and future.  But those months after the fire gave us an opportunity to return to say goodbye—to choose what we should take and what we should leave behind; perhaps a fitting metaphor for Fort McMurray one year later, as we struggle to make sense of the destruction and search for hope in our collective future.