In Fort McMurray, stark contrast between devastated and untouched neighbourhoods

Officials lead media tour through charred remains of city

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — It’s impossible to tell where one house ended and the next began.

Zoom out on this stretch of Beacon Hill Drive in southwest Fort McMurray and it’s a scene sapped of colour — all charred black, ashy white and sickly beige.

Zoom in and everyday objects become discernible in a tangled sea of rubble — the lopsided frame of a swingset, a barbecue, a wire cage for a pet hamster or bird.

By the curb is the husk of a pickup truck, its tires melted puddles on the pavement. Further back, the remnants of a wall, crumpled like a piece of paper, and what’s left of a home’s interior plumbing, water still spurting out.

Yet bus shelters remain intact.

Beacon Hill was one of the first Fort McMurray neighbourhoods to catch fire a week ago, regional fire chief Darby Allen told reporters on a bus tour Monday of the northeastern Alberta city.

If not for the quick action and smart decisions of firefighters, much more of Fort McMurray would have suffered the same fate, he said.

Up to 90 per cent of the city was saved in the end — 2,400 structures damaged and 25,000 still standing.

As the bus makes its way through downtown Fort McMurray’s main drag, Franklin Ave., nothing seems amiss except for the absence of a single human being. Strip malls, the local college and the hospital were all untouched by the flames.

Firefighters worked for 12 hours to keep flames on a thickly treed hillside from spreading, Allen said. Had they not been successful, “we would have lost the downtown.”

Uphill, in the community of Abasand, it’s a scene of stark contrast.

On one side of a street, a row of homes is perfectly intact. On the other, a condo complex has been flattened.

Under the parking garage of the complex remain a few parked vehicles. A blackened children’s bicycle leans against a chain-link fence along with an adult-sized one. Across the way is a blackened bath tub and an singed stove, flipped upside-down.

When destroyed buildings can be found so close to pristine ones in the aftermath of a fire, it’s not a fluke, said Allen.

“When you see isolated instances like that, it was specific firefighter operations internally that stopped the spread of that fire.”

To Fort McMurray residents seeing the devastating images on television or social media for the first time, Allen had a message — hundreds of emergency workers “gave their all” to save as much of the city as they could.

“Fort McMurray is still alive.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press