As Tibbo, who is from Yarmouth, N.S., thinks back to the day his family and tens of thousands of other people evacuated Fort McMurray – chased down by a relentless wildfire – he says people weren’t just concerned about themselves, but about others too.
“People shared gas, gave rides, helped others pack and even picked up friends’ children from school. In gridlocked traffic we were waved ahead by a gentleman as if it was no different than lunchtime rush hour,” Tibbo recalls.
“A few hours south of town, when gas stations were running out of fuel and traffic was backed for hours, I was greeted by kindness as someone let my wife and I ahead of them in line,” he says. “I'll forever be amazed and grateful that 90,000 were evacuated that day from a city with only one major highway running through it. It’s a testament to the inherent good in all of us.”
Another feeling Tibbo will never forget was the happiness he felt driving south on the highway, knowing his wife, son, dog, family and friends were safe. Simply put, he says, there is no greater reminder about what matters most in life.
A YEAR LATER
It’s been one year since the wildfire evacuation, although people don’t need an anniversary to be reminded. Tibbo says people talk about it regularly because it impacted the lives of so many. Around 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed, with thousands of other people displaced from their homes.
The recovery will be ongoing for years.
As the anniversary approached, Tibbo says mental health agencies were preparing to continue their support for the community. The municipality is hosting a community day and school boards have also been preparing. And with construction season starting, people are looking ahead while also looking back.
“The wildfire is part of our culture now and it drives a lot of what we do as a community, from the municipal standpoint to the corporate landscape and everything in between,” says Tibbo.
FULL COVERAGE: Fire in Fort McMurray: One year later
On the day of the evacuation Tibbo says there was little time to think about the gravity of the situation as “reacting effectively” took precedence. Getting his wife Suzie, their six-week-old son Hunter and their dog to safety was what mattered most.
“I got a call from a friend midway through packing who exclaimed ‘Baby’s first emergency!’ in a joking manner, he didn't yet realize what was really happening,” Tibbo says, calling it a much needed chuckle in the midst of chaos. “I liken my reaction to the evacuation to autopilot, where we were aware of what was happening but had one job to do: get out safely.”
At times black smoke billowed around them as they drove. In their review mirror they watched the flames they were escaping.
“Planes dropped fire retardant next to the street we were gridlocked on in hopes that the fire wouldn't reach us before we were able to get out,” Tibbo says. “We used the time evacuating to text and call friends and family to ensure them that we were in good hands.”
After leaving Fort McMurray on May 3, the family didn’t get settled back into their community until September. A quick trip home that June was when they discovered there was water damage to the home they were renting and they couldn’t go back yet.
And so they used Calgary as a home base, visiting other places, family and friends.
“We were lucky enough to have very supportive and loving friends who opened their homes and their hearts to us,” says Tibbo.
FOREVER CHANGED BUT MOVING AHEAD
Today, Tibbo says their community is still alive and well, although many families have left, seeking to set up roots elsewhere. He says there has been tremendous support from the Red Cross and proper emphasis has been placed on mental health supports for family and children.
Needless to say, the landscape has vastly changed. Tibbo says parts of the city are still waiting for clearances to rebuild homes. Trees still stand but they’re charred. Wooded areas have been cut away and cleared as a preventive message against future fires.
The past year has been tough for many families, he says, not only because of the losses they suffered at the time of the fire, but the after effects of insurance battles, job losses, the housing market and uncertainty about the future.
“Everyone is on their own journey. Some have rebuilt, some have moved on, and some are still in the trenches. The entire community has been changed and is in the midst of change,” Tibbo says. “The full effects are really immeasurable, but I strive to believe that the community has opportunity for growth here and the resiliency to see it through.”