A house can be replaced. The memories inside can't.
Anthony Hoffman knows this as well as anybody. He is a firefighter for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and has been battling structure fires in Fort McMurray pretty much non-stop since last Tuesday.
While he was saving other people's houses, his childhood home in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood and the condo in which he was living in nearby Abasand both burned. There is nothing left but ashes and heartache.
"A house is four walls, but it is so much more than that," Mr. Hoffman said Monday, taking a minute to collect his thoughts. "Everything that shapes your life happens there. Everything you experienced as a family within the four walls, it watched.
"It is almost like going through the loss of a relationship. You still have beautiful memories, but you don't have a future any more. You can't help but feel a loss."
Renovations to his parents' home were just being completed on Tuesday when the forest fire burning out of control plowed through Fort McMurray. It is a natural disaster on a scale rarely seen in Canada. More than 80,000 people have been evacuated, and more than 1,600 homes have been lost. The damages will be in the many billions.
People all over the country – the world, really – are rallying behind the northern Alberta community. The response has been encouraging, but there are simply some things people cannot replace.
Standing in front of the rubble of his family home at 433 Beacon Hill Dr. last week, Mr. Hoffman was overwhelmed. The chimney was the only thing left of the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. Contractors had been polishing the kitchen counters when they were forced to leave.
Later, when what happened started to sink in, Mr. Hoffman sank to his knees and cried.
"It sounds stupid, but a home is a member of your family," he said. "It is every chat I ever had with my parents. It is every fight I ever had with my brothers. It is every girl I ever brought home to meet my family. It is a big piece of you."
A firefighter and emergency medical technician for 5 1/2 years, Mr. Hoffman was just coming off an overnight shift when the fire barrelled through the south end of the city, consuming almost everything in its path. Knowing he would be needed, the 30-year-old packed a change of clothes and drove from his condo to the fire hall.
As soon as he was deployed, he started battling fires. He didn't think much about his own property, and neither did other firefighters. A union official has since estimated that two dozen of the homes that were lost belonged to firefighters.
"I think it is always there in the back of your mind, but in the thick of things you put your head down and focus and do what you do," Mr. Hoffman said. "The first night was insane. We had every piece of equipment rolling, and I ended up on five crews at 10 or 12 different fire scenes.
"We were jumping frantically from place to place. There were more structure fires that night than most firefighters see in a career."
There were brief moments of euphoria, but they were short-lived.
"We would stop a fire in one place, and then would find another had started somewhere else," he said. "Any progress we made was gone.
"We've all been to fires, but this was the first time a lot of us we're looking at one another like, 'What do we do?' The fire was just too big."
After working more than 24 hours and living on adrenalin, power bars and energy drinks, Mr. Hoffman took a nap. Before drifting off for an hour or two, he posted something on Facebook.
"Driving through Abasand, it's impossible to untangle all the emotions," he wrote. "For all the houses still standing, it's hard not to feel a bit of pride, whether it was us or not, every one of them feels like a celebration. For all the houses that were lost … it's hard not to feel a bit of responsibility. For every person who lost their hard work, dreams and homes, my heart is broken."
With the exception of when he took a year off to travel and attended college, Mr. Hoffman has spent his entire life in Fort McMurray. Some people may see it as a money pit bursting with fly-in labourers. But it is also home to 80,000 people who chose to be there and love it for a myriad of reasons.
"There is a camaraderie and a brotherhood that extends to the community," he said. "There are strong people here, and some of the best people I have ever met, people that added to my character through good times and bad."
People will rebuild in Fort McMurray. Life will carry on. The price of oil will rise, and the economy will roll again. But there has been terrible loss.
"The renovations in my [parents'] home were beautiful," Mr. Hoffman said. "I was just planning a barbecue as part of a housewarming party."
Last week, he stood, taking in the ruins of the house where he grew up. The driveway where he learned to ride a bike. The sidewalk where he set up a lemonade stand as a kid. The front yard where he used to wait for his dad to come home from work. The lawn he hated to mow.
That is when it dawned on him, he said, that the house had one more lesson to impart. It is more than four walls.
"People are all that matter," he said. "Your impact on them, and theirs on you. Family is powerful. Don't ever neglect it."