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Fort McMurray fire

Fort Mac revisited

Globe reporters check in on some of the places and people they visited for last year's series to see how they fared in the fire, and how the community is coping

An RCMP officer surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray.

An RCMP officer surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray.

TWITTER/RCMP ALBERTA/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In 2015, The Globe and Mail spent a year chronicling life in Fort McMurray, as the town grappled with challenges of rapid growth and hard times for the oil economy that sustained it.

FORT MAC
A year-long project about Fort McMurray, Alta., which has come to be the emblem of Canada’s energy sector – and all the issues that surround it.

The Globe found a community aspiring to be more than a frontier town for transient oil-sands workers; more and more families were making homes there, crafting ambitious plans for cultural centres and infrastructure to enrich the community. Plunging oil prices had already created serious setbacks for some of those plans – but the worst was yet to come.

Now Fort McMurray's families have fled, their lives in turmoil, and many of their homes destroyed. More than 80,000 people have been evacuated from a raging wildfire that continues to burn and threatens surrounding communities. Fort McMurray's disaster is shaping up to be the costliest in Canadian history – as much as $9-billion, according to some estimates – and while some of the places The Globe's journalists visited are still standing, the community they were built for will never be the same.

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Footage shows wildfire raging along highway out of Fort McMurray

0:38


Heritage Park: History in the line of fire

by Madeleine White


Located on the southern edge of Fort McMurray's downtown, Heritage Park is a time capsule of the town's past. The area features of a number of historic buildings that were saved and relocated to the green spot near Hangingstone River.

One of the oldest structures is the wooden Catholic Mission building that was raised in 1911 and escaped ruin in 1958 (it had been sold for firewood) when it was relocated to Heritage Park. Inside these old abodes are numerous relics, archived documents and photos of Fort McMurray's history, including several of old oil-sands sites such as Bitumount, Alta.

Bitumount: Looking back at where Alberta’s oil-sands production started

6:39

As of May 6, there has been no official word from Heritage Park employees whether it has survived the wildfires. There is, however, reason for concern since it is not far from the Waterways neighbourhood, which reportedly experienced significant damage – it's believed 90 per cent of the homes have been razed.


How the town's 'heart' became its refuge

by Trish McAlaster


From the archives: Tour Fort McMurray’s really big recreation centre

1:30

During my stint in Fort Mac, I was lucky enough to visit and report on MacDonald Island Park, one of Canada's largest sport and recreation complexes. The multimillion dollar facility is expansive, housing pools and a waterpark, multiple rinks, athletic fields and gymnasium spaces, just to name a few of the features. Theresa Wells, the complex's communications co-ordinator at the time, greeted me and toured me around. I quickly learned that complex wasn't just an athlete's mecca; with a library, a daycare, dance and art studios, restaurants, it is, as Ms. Wells put it, "the heart of the community."

The sports facilities on Fort McMurray’s McDonald Island.

The sports facilities on Fort McMurray’s McDonald Island.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, HANDOUTS

That sense of community was evident throughout my travels. Everyone I met in the city was friendly and welcoming, and all had some association with MacDonald Island. I was even invited to join the local triathlon club's training sessions at the facility.

Distant flames are visible from MacDonald Island Park on May 3.

Towering, distant flames are visible from MacDonald Island Park on May 3.

COURTESY OF KANGEN LEE/REUTERS

When the crisis began, it came as no surprise when I heard that the Island was where the first Gregoire evacuees (and their pets) were sent, before being evacuated again. Ms. Wells told The Globe that, as far as she knew, the island hadn't seen any damage. I can't imagine a place where anyone could be better cared for before the complex had to shut down upon evacuation of the city.

With a report from Colin Freeze

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Markaz ul Islam mosque: On hope and a prayer

by Colin Freeze


A rendering of the new mosque, school and recreation centre Fort McMurray's Muslim community has been working to build.

A rendering of the new mosque, school and recreation centre Fort McMurray’s Muslim community has been working to build. The existing downtown mosque was built in 1989 to accommodate only 250 worshippers.

COURTESY STUDIO SENBEL, ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN

A planned $50-million structure for Fort McMurray was profiled in The Globe in February as hallmark of a Islam's growth in Canada. Much more than a mosque, the enormous four-phase complex aspires to incorporate an Islamic school, a gym and even a swimming pool.

The swimming pool in the new mosque.

The swimming pool in the new mosque.

COURTESY STUDIO SENBEL, ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN

So far, both the Markaz ul Islam's outgrown old structure downtown and its outsized nascent shell in Thickwood are untouched by the flames raging across Fort McMurray.

"I have heard that no damage has been sustained to either site, but a lot of members have lost their homes," one worshipper said Thursday. He added that "mosques across Alberta have opened their hearts and doors to Muslim and non-Muslim victims" of the fire.


The gateway to the city

by Madeleine White


Travellers head for the baggage-claim area at the Fort McMurray airport on April 5, 2015.

Travellers head for the baggage-claim area at the Fort McMurray airport on April 5, 2015.

PETER POWER/FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Many visitors to Fort McMurray build their first impressions of the town from its new airport terminal. In fact the hashtag #YMMfire is based on Fort McMurray International's airport code.

The $258-million, 15,000-square-foot terminal was built in 2013 to accommodate a growing number of travellers visiting the bustling oil-sands town. The building is an intricate wood and glass structure and one of the winners of the 2013 Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence. Inside, it features four aircraft bridges, two baggage carousels, 16 restaurants, free WiFi and retail shops. More than a million passengers passed through it in 2015.

The airport is located 13 kilometres from Fort McMurray's downtown. On Thursday, the airport released a statement saying it had not been seriously damaged by wildfires – only a maintenance garage had received "minimal damage."

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Phoenix Heli-Flight: Fort Mac's eyes in the sky

by Madeleine White


The plight of funding Fort McMurray’s Medivac

2:30

Undoubtedly the best way to understand the scope of the oil sands open-pit production sites is from the sky, and Paul Spring's helicopters are a particularly refined way to experience that view.

Mr. Spring has been operating the charter helicopter company for over 20 years. He also provides emergency medivac services with his fleet through the Local H.E.R.O. foundation.

Mr. Spring told The Globe's Kelly Cryderman that he managed to escape the fires with this staff and all but one of their helicopters. (A brand-new helicopter had to be left because it was undergoing upgrades.) As of Thursday, Mr. Spring said he believed his hangar (and remaining copter and equipment) was safe.


FORT McMURRAY: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In photos: Suffocating smoke hovers over Fort McMurray Visible from space, the smoke that chokes the town has a horrifying beauty all its own.
How firefighters are trying to tame Fort McMurray's unpredictable blaze The fire chief for the Fort McMurray area captured its capricious personality perfectly when he referred to the inferno roaring through his city as a 'nasty, dirty fire,' Patrick White reports.
From one firestorm to another, Syrian refugees forced to flee Fort McMurray The raging wildfires that forced Rula Labak, her two teenaged children and her mother from their apartment earlier this week have left them traumatized and worried about the future, Jill Mahoney reports.
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