3 months after the fire

Three months ago, unbelievably hot and dry conditions created a perfect fire storm in Fort McMurray and led to the evacuation of the entire city. While there are similarities, everyone’s perspective of what happened during those harrowing hours is completely unique. Stories have been told and retold. In fact, each interaction adds new dimensions to this life-changing experience.

Two months ago, re-entry began and the community started to re-establish itself. Some of our United Way staff were among those who came back in the first days of re-entry. We were in The Redpoll Centre in the second week of June and open for business by the 13th.

This milestone begs the question: Where is the United Way three months after the evacuation?

On the one hand, we are super engaged with several of the committees that have been struck to take a collaborative approach to the recovery work. Our Executive Director, Diane Shannon, chairs the inter-agency fire recovery committee that includes representatives from governments, the Canadian Red Cross, and other essential social profit and community partners. This group will also play an essential role in providing information for the funding allocation process on a number of different fronts.

Speaking of funding, with the help of United Way partners across Canada, we jumped into action mere days after evacuation to launch a fundraising campaign and website called United for Fort McMurray. Online donations and special fundraising events combined to raise about $1 million. A further $2 million was raised during the Fire Aid for Fort McMurray benefit concert at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on June 29th.

“These donated dollars are specifically designated to fire recovery,” said Diane Shannon. “These funds will help charities and nonprofit organizations with fire related impacts and the creation of new programs and services specifically addressing elements of our post-fire reality.”

John Evans is the Chair of our Community Investment Committee, the group of volunteers that helps guide the allocation decision making process for our community fund. He has been actively involved from the very beginning of this process and has noted considerable progress in how the various agencies are working together.

“This is not an us and them scenario,” he said. “There is a ‘we are all in this together’ mentality that just keeps getting stronger as we go along. We want to get money in the hands of agencies and nonprofits that need it, but we’re committed to doing so in a way that is both transparent and accountable. We need to carefully steward these dollars that came to us from across the country, and in some cases, around the world.”

As one of the first facilities to get back online, The Redpoll Centre – a capacity building program of the United Way – has provided space to a number of different organizations.

“We have been able to use The Redpoll Centre in the exact way that it was envisioned: as a gathering place for like-minded organizations to work and collaborate,” said Diane. “As an example, Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association and the Fort McMurray Youth Soccer Association are with us while they await the return and restoration of their regular facilities. We’ve also been able to be a meeting place for groups like Canadian Mental Health Association, Waypoints, The Canadian Red Cross and others.”

One of the success stories of this post-fire recovery period is the fact that all 30 of our member agencies are back up and running. Most are well on the way to being fully operational, some have been able to add programs and services related to the fire recovery. Understandably, there have been human resource and operational impacts from the evacuation. However, the sector is working together to ensure that the social infrastructure of our community is in place.

“We are in this unique situation of having to focus on two major streams of work,” said Diane Shannon. “On the one hand, we are collaborating with our community partners to ensure that the fire recovery donations make their way to local programs and services so they can help people. On the other hand, we are getting ready to move into our regular campaign that replenishes our community fund on an annual basis. These are two separate and distinct funding streams. The fire recovery dollars have largely come from outside the community and will focus on impacts from this disaster. The funds raised during the community campaign largely come from residents within Wood Buffalo and support the work that our agencies do to help people all the time.”

Our United Way team is intact and ready to work with you to re-build and strengthen the community and region that we love. We are honoured to be a part of an unparalleled demonstration of resilience in action.


Author: Russell Thomas

​Russell is a marketing and communications professional who has spent 20 years in Wood Buffalo working with the OK Radio Group, Keyano College, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray. A regular blogger, Russell's writing can be seen online (www.middleagebulge.com) and in multiple publications. His paintings can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the community. Married to Heather and "Papa" to Dylan and Ben, Russell is a passionate spokesperson for United Way.