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Restoring Fort McMurray's Urban Forest Our Greatest Challenge Yet

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New vegetation sprouts from the forest floor while surrounded by scorched trees at Gregoire Lake near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Wildfires forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Like all Canadians, I watched the nightly news in disbelief as wildfires devastated the Fort McMurray region throughout the months of May and June. I read about how the blaze destroyed roughly 2,400 homes and buildings, and how 80,000 people were forced out of their residences for nearly a month.

But I still wasn't fully prepared for what I experienced during my visit last week.

I'm a professional forester and I've seen my fair share of forest fires up close. Still, the vastness of this fire and extent of damage in an urban area was sad, sobering and more than a little eerie. Once-vibrant neighbourhoods now looked like cemeteries. Hundreds of burnt cars, pieces of patio furniture and still-standing stone chimneys were coated with an ashen-coloured paper and water mixture to prevent the toxic ash from flying. The only things left standing intact was a cluster of Canada Post mailboxes. They were just sitting there with no damage at all, their colours and numbers still strangely unblemished, with everything else around them either burned or melted away.

Upon entering some neighbourhoods, my team at Tree Canada and I were stopped by security personnel, many of whom were wearing paper masks. It didn't take long to figure out why. I immediately started sneezing and feeling itchy after breathing in the acrid air.

My team had to obtain special passes to visit many of these areas, which are still cloistered behind heavy security and fencing because of the strong contamination and security issues. We were in Fort McMurray to both understand the devastation to its tree cover firsthand and to consult with the Government of Alberta, city planners, urban foresters and First Nations groups on the best way to rebuild and restore the region's tree canopy.

You may have already heard that the wildland forest in the area will regenerate itself, and that's true -- amazingly, not even two months since the fire, there were many places where a new generation of trees were already a foot high. But while fire is actually a vital ecological component of the boreal forest, it can be a far more destructive force in urban areas. Trees within municipalities have greater difficulty in naturally regenerating for a number of reasons, such as compacted soils, air pollution and salt from city streets.

In short, urban trees need help to regrow. And this will be a huge task as the sheer amount of forest and individual trees burnt within the city of Fort McMurray itself is quite disturbing. In addition to the 580,000 hectares of scorched earth (larger than the entire province of P.E.I.), more than 10,000 community trees on private property and community parks were lost, including thousands of mature boulevard trees which now need to be replaced.

It was almost exactly 20 years ago that Tree Canada, a national, not-for-profit charitable organization, launched Operation ReLeaf to help communities recover from Québec's devastating Saguenay Floods. Since then, we've helped municipalities across the country replenish urban forests damaged by floods, snowstorms, fires and pests such as the Alberta Mountain Pine Beetle and Emerald Ash Borer.

However, over the past few days, it's become clear to me -- the Fort McMurray wildfires will be our greatest challenge to date.

While the municipality in the region handles priority issues such as putting houses in the ground, getting people back to work and kids back to school, we'll be using our decades of experience and expertise in urban forestry to assist the region's return to its former beauty while helping bring a sense of normalcy back to the lives of its residents.

To accomplish our goal and help make Operation ReLeaf Fort McMurray a success, we're currently seeking corporate sponsorships and individual donations from everyday Canadians. Please visit www.treecanada.ca if you would like to contribute to the cause or learn more about my organization's efforts.

While what I saw last week was bleak, I still see a bright future for Fort McMurray. With a little help, I believe we can restore the region's urban tree canopy and rejuvenate one of Canada's hardest working communities.

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