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Fort McMurray got burned – and (water) bombed

A rotting fish that must have dropped from the sky helps to solve the mystery of houses damaged by air tankers fighting the massive 2016 blaze

Kirby Byrne surveys damage to his Fort McMurray home, which survived the May 2016 fire, but was made uninhabitable by damage from water bombers.

It has been more than nine months since a wildfire raced through Fort McMurray and incinerated everything in its path. Neighbourhoods left in ruins are bustling with construction. It won’t be long before houses are rebuilt and normalcy returns for some victims of the worst natural disaster in Canadian history.

And then there is Cherlyn and Kirby Byrne. Two-hundred and ninety three days after the evacuation and 263 days after returning home, they were forced out a second time last month by freakish circumstances. Damaged by water bombers, their four-bedroom, four-bath house was crumbling around them.

At least 2,400 structures were lost in the May 3 fire, including nearly 1,800 single-family homes. As of last week, 339 foundations had been laid for rebuilding them, and 530 development permits had been issued.

The Byrnes have been told it may be a year to two before their home is rebuilt.

“You start looking around and it’s a nightmare,” Kirby says as he gives a tour of their home in Thickwood, a neighbourhood that was left mostly intact. “We have been reliving May 3 every day.”

Roof trusses and beams are compromised. The foundation is cracked. Walls are bowed. Fractures run like spider webs along the ceiling. Sheet rock is warped. Floors are uneven.

It’s like a carnival fun house, but not funny.

“When we got home on June 3, we were thankful,” Cherlyn says. “We opened the door and smelled smoke but figured if that was the worst problem we had, we had it pretty good.

“We thought everything would be fine, and then things started to regress.”

The Byrnes have no quarrel with the water bombers. The pilots dispatched by Alberta’s forestry service did their best to minimize carnage. Alberta’s Agriculture and Forestry Ministry deployed a fleet of 16 air tankers as well as helicopters equipped with buckets while attempting to stop the fire’s spread. The fleet of planes flew missions for just short of 1,600 hours while battling the blaze.

At some point, while trying to stop the fire, one accidentally unleashed a torrent of water on the Byrnes’ home.

After being inadvertently damaged by water bombers, Cherlyn and Kirby Byrne’s house will have to be reconstructed.

Initially, the couple’s insurer told them they weren’t covered. The company denied the claim, saying the damage to the three-storey house purchased a year and a half earlier for $720,000 was pre-existing.

Then a neighbour across the street reported problems similar to theirs.

When he returned to Fort McMurray, Jon Tupper found his roof badly damaged, the chimney bent like a pipe cleaner, and lawn furniture jammed against one corner of his house.

“It looked like everything movable in my yard had been swatted by the hand of God,” he says.

Two doors down, a neighbour returned home and found a rotting fish that must have been dropped out of the sky onto his deck.

“That’s how the conversation started,” Cherlyn says. “We were all wondering what the heck a fish was doing there.”

Mr. Tupper has nothing but praise for his insurance company. It agreed the damage was caused by a water bomber and promptly authorized repairs. The Byrne family was not as fortunate, and it is definitely not alone.

Terry Cooper, principal in a Fort McMurray law firm, says a significant number of homeowners suffered damage from water bombers. Some claims were handled swiftly and efficiently, Mr. Cooper says. Other times, a prolonged battle ensued. Some have not yet been resolved.

“The stories we hear are heartbreaking,” says Mr. Cooper, whose firm is providing pro bono advice for fire victims. “The number of people we have encountered that wish now that their houses would have burned is staggering.”

Kirby Byrne shows major foundation issues in his house after the family was forced to move out.

It wasn’t until two weeks ago, after months of discourse, that the Byrnes’ insurer agreed to cover the cost of rebuilding their home.

“We have owned our own houses since 1999, and were talking about bankruptcy and foreclosure,” Cherlyn says, crying. “There was no way we could finance something like this. There were many nights we couldn’t sleep.”

She is 39 and has lived in Fort McMurray all of her life. At one time, she operated heavy equipment in the oil sands. Now she is an administrator at a Catholic school a few blocks away.

On the day of the fires, before she went home, she joined other staff members in evacuating 1,200 students.

“It was absolute mass chaos,” she says.

Kirby was two years old when his family moved from Newfoundland to Fort McMurray, and he has never left. He was at his job as a mechanic 80 kilometres to the north when evacuations began. By the time the couple fled their home, burning pine needles were landing on Kirby’s arm in the driveway.

As they drove south through the city, the neighbourhood where he grew up, Beacon Hill, was ablaze. Seventy per cent, or 399 homes in Beacon Hill were lost.

“It was heartbreaking,” says Kirby, 43. “Flames were shooting 200 feet into the air. I was trying to keep my wits. The horizon was a ball of red smoke.”

The couple went to Okotoks, near Calgary, and spent time in Edmonton after they fled. They returned home with other evacuees on the first day it was allowed – and that’s when their trouble began.

One night, as Kirby lay in bed, he heard a bang downstairs. He figured his wife had dropped something. Then he heard the noise again, and investigated.

“The front door had swung open and I couldn’t get it closed,” he says. “The door frame was that badly distorted.”

Soon the walls at the front of the house were bending and the second storey was threatening to cave in. The couple received an estimate for $223,000 simply to lift the roof off their garage and replace it.

Kirby Byrne stands next to a support wall in his home’s garage, intended to mitigate structural damage, after the family was forced to move out of their Fort McMurray house.

To gather evidence to present to their insurer, Cherlyn solicited statements from everyone that owned the house before them. The couple also hired an engineer to refute the findings of their insurer.

The week before last, the Byrnes were forced to move into a rental. They are relieved their home will be rebuilt but are frustrated the process took so long.

“I feel that Fort McMurray is divided in three,” Kirby says. “There are people that lost their homes, there are those that didn’t and then there is us. When I tell people what has happened, they can’t comprehend it.”

They have been together for 15 years, and have two children in their combined family, a daughter, 21, and a son, 16. Gage abandoned his bedroom in the basement long ago after a slab of concrete fell off the wall.

“We loved our house,” Cherlyn says, fighting tears. “We had lots of plans. It is not far from where I grew up. There is a lot of sentimental value. There are things built in your hearts and minds that you can never replace.”

In their garage, there is a sign beside the door that leads into the house. “There is no place like home,” it reads.

“We loved the feeling of having our own home,” she says. “It is very difficult for us now to live in someone else’s house.”

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