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fort mcmurray fire

Randy McCue, left, stands with his sister, Susan McCue, in St. Martins, N.B.

A big guy with a big personality and bigger heart, Randy McCue died in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Jan. 18 after a long battle with cancer. He was 63, loved to fish, played and coached baseball, and drove a blue Harley so enormous that friends joked that all it needed was a roof.

An electrician on the East Coast for many years, he headed west in 2005, found a job in Alberta's oil sands with Suncor Energy and bought a three-bedroom garden home. Before he died, Mr. McCue gave the house to his kid sister, Susan, who is nine years younger, and asked her to divide his most treasured belongings among family and friends.

The Fort McMurray fire: Here's how you can help, and receive help

On Tuesday, when an inferno began to consume Fort McMurray, it took Randy McCue's old house in the Abasand neighbourhood with it.

"It's like I lost my brother all over again," Susan McCue said Wednesday from her home in St. Martins, a picturesque fishing village in New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy. "He is ashes, and now his house is ashes, too.

"I went from being my brother's companion to caregiver to executor of his will in a matter of minutes," Ms. McCue said. "I still have to settle his estate, but everything is burned."

After spending a few weeks packing boxes in her brother's home, Ms. McCue returned to New Brunswick on April 18. Her plan was to come back to Fort McMurray in a few weeks and continue with the heartbreaking task. In the months leading up to his death, they talked for hours about what to give to whom.

"It is the worst thing that I have ever had to do, and I would do it again in a minute," she said. "My brother asked me. But it is hard to turn the business side on and off. It is emotional for me."

Since she expected to return soon, Ms. McCue left many of her own belongings in the house. She also left her husband's work gear behind. In November, Jimmy Clayton had been laid off by Syncrude Canada, and to this point has not been recalled.

That is the harsh reality of what is happening in Fort McMurray. Before the fire, plummeting oil prices had already wreaked havoc on the local economy. As the cost of recovering bitumen from the sand in northern Alberta became prohibitive, companies began thinning the work force.

"I left things behind that I should have brought with me," she said. "I intended to come back on May 18, but now I probably won't wait that long.

"I want to go back and see for myself."

There is no telling at this point when that will be. With the exception of police, firefighters and other emergency workers, Fort McMurray is a ghost town.

Like most others, Ms. McCue has received no word specifically about the condition of the house. Firefighters are battling blazes all over the city, with some sections hit worse than others. The most recent estimate is that 50 per cent of the houses in Abasand have been destroyed, but on Thursday, more began catching on fire.

When Randy's next-door neighbour was evacuating on Tuesday afternoon, she told Ms. McCue that flaming embers were landing on the roof.

"I am stuck in New Brunswick, and don't really know what's going on," Ms. McCue said. "I was hopeful the first night, but I am not hopeful any more."

Last June, Randy McCue hitched his bass-fishing boat behind his motorhome and drove it across the country to his family's homestead in St. Martins. He had originally been diagnosed with colon cancer and, after undergoing treatment, was cancer-free for five years. But in the past three years, the disease returned and spread to other parts of his body.

"I can still picture him sitting out back of our parents' house, smoking his cigars and drinking rum," Susan said between tears. "He would sit there, looking out at the Bay of Fundy, soaking it in like a sponge."

In September, she drove back with him to Fort McMurray, and stayed with him until the end. Three hours after he died, men from Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Texas with whom he played games online arrived in Fort McMurray. Knowing he was sick, they had travelled all day just to meet him.

"I picked them up at the airport and took them to the house," Ms. McCue said. "They wanted to sit in his chair. Randy touched so many people. Nobody knew that side of him."

When he died, Mr. McCue left behind the many trophies the baseball teams he coached had collected, two guitars, an amplifier, the big brown cowboy hat he loved so much, and an oil painting of St. Martins. The garage was full of his tools.

"He wanted me to give those things away to people," Susan said. "He wanted them to have a piece of him." But they all went up in smoke.

The one item of his that Susan had already shipped to New Brunswick was a motorcycle. It arrived last week.

"It is the only thing of his to survive," she said.

On Thursday, she cried when she talked about him. The disaster in northern Alberta has left her feeling numb.

"I think I am in shock," she said. "I'm just glad he was not here to see everything he worked so hard for lost."