For firefighter Mark Stephenson, shown in this handout image, the Alberta oilsands capital is his home and he plans to rebuild on the same spot where his house went up in flames. Stephenson says he can’t drive through Fort McMurray without being brought back to May 2016. That’s when, in the thick of battling a ferocious wildfire that destroyed 10 per cent of the northern Alberta city, he paused from his work to film his family’s home engulfed in flames.THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Mental effects of wildfire still linger in Fort McMurray

‘Resilient, but tired:’ Mental effects of wildfire lingering in Fort McMurray

Firefighter Mark Stephenson says he can’t drive through Fort McMurray without being brought back to May 2016.

That’s when, in the thick of battling a ferocious wildfire that destroyed 10 per cent of the northern Alberta city, he paused from his work to film his family’s home engulfed in flames.

“Every turn of a corner on the street here is a memory back to that day,” he says more than 1 1/2 years later.

Stephenson had hoped that by this Christmas, he, his wife and their two young children would be settled into the house they’re rebuilding. But a recent cold snap slowed construction and it’s going to be another two or three months.

He sometimes finds himself reaching for a memento — a teddy bear from childhood, a body-building trophy — that no longer exists. He says he’s generally OK, but there are some tough days on the job. He says he has benefited from counselling the fire department has arranged for its staff.

“A lot of people are over it and past it and that’s great. But it’s not the same for everyone. There are some people out here who are still hurting.”

The debris has been cleared and vacant lots are gradually being filled with new homes in Fort McMurray. But as time erases the physical scars of the fire called The Beast, mental and emotional ones remain for many who experienced the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

Care providers with the addiction and mental-health branch of Alberta Health Services had 38,777 client contacts in the region between May 10, 2016, and this past Oct. 31 — about one-third higher than the tally the agency reported in March of this year. There is no comparable data for before the disaster.

Vincent Agyapong, with the University of Alberta’s psychiatry department, has been studying the mental-health impact of the fire.

Of 486 adults surveyed in November 2016, the rate of probable post-traumatic stress disorder was 12.8 per cent. It would have been less than one per cent under normal circumstances, Agyapong said. Rates of probable depression and anxiety were also high.

Agyapong says city residents suffering from PTSD may have nightmares or become anxious at the sound of sirens.

“Some deliberately avoid going to places that remind them of the devastating impact,” he says. ”I’ve seen quite a number of patients who have left Fort McMurray because … the city as a whole reminds them of the trauma that they went through during the wildfire.”

Agyapong says he gets more referrals now, when he spends one week a month in Fort McMurray, than he did when he was working in the city full time before the fire.

Calls to the Some Other Solutions 24-hour crisis line have gone up drastically, says health and wellness manager Linda Sovdi.

Increased need is likely to be one reason, but people may also be more aware of the resources available and more comfortable asking for help than they were pre-fire, she says.

They’re also more likely to open up to someone who went through what they did, she suggests.

“When I’m talking to somebody about the first firepit that I smelled after the fire, it’s like there’s a heightened awareness. People know you get it.”

The infusion of nervous excitement in the fire’s immediate aftermath has worn off.

“Fort McMurray is resilient, but tired.”

The regional municipality, which includes the city of Fort McMurray and surrounding communities, estimates its permanent population at 75,000 to 77,600. Its 2015 municipal census stood at almost 82,000.

At the beginning of this month, new foundations were in for just over half of the 2,579 dwellings that were destroyed. About 10 per cent have made it to final inspection.

“I’m never going to be fully satisfied with what I’m seeing until everybody has moved significantly forward,” says Mayor Don Scott, who won the race to replace longtime mayor Melissa Blake in October.

Scott says while there is clearly a lot of work to do, the general mood in the region is one of optimism.

“I think we’re sensing that the best days are ahead of us, and I believe that to my core.”

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sylvan Lake Wranglers. File Photo
Sylvan Lake Wranglers ready for shorten hockey season

The HJHL will have a 20 game season, playing four games in a cohort and then going dark for 14 days

Decorate your vehicle for display at the second annual Trunk or Treat on Oct. 31 . (Blakc Press File Photo)
Sylvan Lake church to host a socially distanced Trunk or Treat on Halloween

Goblins and ghouls can go around to vehicles for their tricks or treats at the Alliance Church

Front-line hospital workers have walked off the job at the Rimbey Hospital, and across the province. Photo Submitted
Front-line health care workers on strike across the province, including Rimbey Hospital

The strike is due to cut of 11,000 health care jobs in the province, according to AUPE

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed more than 1,000 cases over the weekend Monday afternoon. File photo
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up Monday

‘We’ve now crossed the tipping point,’ says Hinshaw

Cases in Ponoka (East Ponoka County) as of Oct. 27. (alberta.ca)
Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 at three Ponoka businesses

Town ‘strongly encouraging’ residents to wear non-medical masks in public

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada/USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on Saturday, March 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rob Gurdebeke
U.S. election results one factor that could impact immigration to Canada next year

The survey polled 1,523 Canadians between Oct. 23 and Oct. 25

Alberta’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. The Alberta government is hoping to get more Albertans employed by moving to limit the number and type of temporary foreign workers it allows into the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta to limit temporary foreign worker program to save jobs for Albertans

Temporary foreign workers already in the province won’t be affected

(Emily Jaycox/Bashaw Star)
Wreath laying ceremony held in Manfred, Alta.

Ceremony marks 64th anniversary of Hungarian revolution, honours settlers

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join AUPE walk outs across the province Monday Oct. 26, 2020. Shaela Dansereau/ The Pipestone Flyer.
City of Wetaskiwin health-care workers strike in protest of province-wide cuts

Wetaskiwin Hospital staff join other front line hospital workers across the province in walk-outs.

Most Read