NEWS
05/06/2016 12:24 EDT | Updated 05/07/2017 01:12 EDT

Exhausted wildfire diaspora worry about their future in Fort McMurray

HALIFAX — Many workers and families drawn to Fort McMurray for work are now spreading back across Canada, carrying a few treasured memories and deep worries over what their post-wildfire future might look like.

The last few mornings at the Halifax airport, the overnight flights from Alberta spill out the refugees from Fort Mac and surrounding communities and camps who are joining families on the East Coast.

Fifteen-year-old Blake Rooyakkers was in Fort McMurray's Thickwood neighbourhood finishing up school while his mother Melody was in Halifax for his sister's graduation earlier this week.

When the fire struck, he was given less than an hour to evacuate, leaving time to pack some clothes and a stuffed sheep his girlfriend had given him.

"I didn't know if I was coming back," he said.

His mother Melody spoke with him on a cell phone as he packed. 

"He asked me what I'd like him to bring. I said,  'Forget it. Just get out. ... You're the only thing I want.'"

Now what happens? For the families coming together, this is the question lingering in the background of emotional reunions.

The storage company where Melody works is still paying workers, at least until it determines the future of its business. Blake is uncertain if his school was damaged, so the Grade 10 student has brought his homework binder to Halifax.

Tracy Lawrence, a nurse at the hospital in Fort McMurray, had also been in Nova Scotia with family before the fires started and on Friday was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her son Tyler Cochrane — an apprentice electrician.

"If it doesn't burn, we're kind of hoping to go back. The house is, as far as I know, still standing," says the mother.

Cochrane was working as an apprentice electrician at Suncor on Tuesday morning, before beginning the harrowing trek south in a family vehicle, weaving around pulled-over vehicles and alongside the burning woodlands.

"Things have shifted a little bit. I'm back here on the East Coast," he says, smiling, as his grandmother — a Halifax resident — stands nearby.

Cochrane says Fort McMurray is the place he'd go home to, adding, "whatever is left of it." Rooyakkers qualifies his return with, "at some point, maybe."

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo which includes Fort McMurray, acknowledged the community's unique come-from-away population means it will be different after the flames are out. But she said she believes it's a plus that will help it rebuild.

"One of the things that has always driven the kind of people that we are is that incredible multicultural influence that we have from our own country, from the far outreaches, to places around the world. And these are people who come against a lot of negative reporting about what the community is," Blake said Friday in Edmonton.

"So, I say a that the folks that come to my community are stronger, bolder, braver, more prone to succeed in what they do. And these setbacks aren't going to stop anybody who came with that kind of spirit in the first place. I think it will just be a stronger community when we come out of this."

Kim Strickland, originally from northern Ontario, said in a telephone interview she's decided to stay in Alberta, where family members can bunk with a relative as they await word on the fate of their adopted city, where they've lived for four years.

Strickland, an Air Canada employee who works at the airport, says her home still is likely standing and her employer is staying in touch with her.

"We're taking it day by day," she said, adding that going home to rural Ontario is a difficult option for many people.

"The reason people left those areas is you just couldn't find a good job, and in some cases, any job," she said.

At the Halifax airport, Nicole and Joel Arsenault are just coping with life day by day, as tiny Emma is strapped to her mother in a snuggly and Tatiana is placed in a stroller.

The school teachers are suddenly coming home to relatives in rural New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with a few bags of clothes, diapers, paperwork and photo albums.

Will they go back?

"I don't know, we have to see what's going on," said Nicole. "I won't right away because of the kids, and I don't feel it will be safe for a while."