Immigrants Undaunted in Return to Fire-ravaged Fort Mac

Homes gone, jobs uncertain -- but determination to build a new life lives on.

By Mychaylo Prystupa 6 Jun 2016 |

Mychaylo Prystupa is a veteran journalist with a focus on energy and politics. Find his stories for The Tyee here. His personal website is here.

It's a sign that Canada's oilsands city will not only rebuild, but thrive in the face of the wildfire disaster. Immigrants and temporary foreign workers -- who clean, pour coffee and pump gas in the boom town of Fort McMurray -- are bound and determined to stay, despite huge personal losses.

Filipino immigrant Cindy Julaton, 48, fled the city one month ago and finally returned Wednesday. She was welcomed by local firefighters waving a giant Canadian flag on the overpass into town. "It brought tears to my eye," she said. "I was overwhelmed with joy."

Julaton first learned of the wildfire on May 4 while working at EnviroClean Drycleaners shop, where she's a manager. Fort Mac was burning, the radio news told her, and it was time to flee.

She rushed home in a panic to get her 27-year-old daughter. "She was still making some supper, and I said, 'No! We don't have time for that -- I'm serious -- get in the car right now!" she recalled.

Soon, Julaton joined a group of 18 Filipinos in a long line of vehicles as tens of thousands of people escaped the city by heading north on Highway 63. Her group of family, friends and co-workers would eat, sleep and sing together throughout the month away from their adoptive northern Alberta home.

But by the time they reached the city's northern boundaries, after crawling for hours in traffic, the fires were on the move. The RCMP ordered them to turn around and head south -- through the burning city. The massive orange flames were engulfing houses beside the road. Roadside trees exploded embers on to vehicles. Julaton spotted a blaze near her house, and worried about its fate.

Her dashboard photos show a smoky city facing Armageddon.

'My main thing was that we get out alive'

Julaton's daughter wanted to stop and get the family's other car.

"No!" Julaton recalls snapping. "'What if we got separated? I am going to die -- just leave it!' She was not happy with it, but you know what? My main thing was we get out alive together."

Not everyone was so lucky. The daughter of Fort McMurray's deputy fire chief was killed in a collision with a logging truck during the exodus. Julaton saw the crash scene just as a helicopter arrived, and snapped another phone picture. Another man died in the crash. But incredibly, they were the only fatalities in the wildfire disaster that forced 88,000 to flee.

At first, the group slept on cots in an evacuation centre in the hamlet of Lac La Biche, about 20 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. A week later, they got an unfurnished apartment. It reminded Julaton of growing up in the Philippines. "So we sat, ate, slept on the floor. But after a week, my back started to hurt. At first I thought it was OK, but it really was not," she laughed.

Another week passed, and a Fort McMurray Catholic priest got them a hotel room with a kitchenette, paid for by the Town of Bonnyville. A small joy was returned. "If you know Filipinos, we love to cook our own food. We were so tired of eating hotdogs and hamburgers. We miss sinigang -- a sour pork soup."

Soon she, and everyone in her group, received government support -- $1,250 per adult, and $500 for every child. It's the kind of disaster aid unheard of in the Philippines, said Julaton.

And her Pacific archipelago nation has experienced extreme weather disasters. Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines in 2013, taking 6,300 lives. It was the strongest storm on record that struck land. Another deadly storm hit Julaton's island of Mindoro late last year. Climate scientists say global warming is expected to worsen the frequency and intensity of weather disasters.

And in the Philippines, food and financial aid don't always get to those in need, said Julaton. If they do, politicians claim credit. "They give out a bottle of water -- they still have to put a face of the politician who gave the water. I didn't like that."

In contrast, the response to Fort McMurray's disaster -- in a much wealthier nation -- has shown Canadian generosity that's made her feel very welcome, Julaton said. Every need -- housing, food, water, even toiletries -- was provided for during the crisis. Canadians gave the Red Cross more than $125 million.

During the Filipino evacuee group's time away from Fort McMurray, their numbers grew to 20, as two more family members arrived from the Philippines.

When your home is gone

Like everyone else holed up in evacuation centres, Julaton and her group wanted to know if their homes were OK. Julaton's house was, she learned on social media. But three in their group, including Norie Sanchez, lost everything. Her apartment, owned by Julaton's boyfriend Gary Agarin, burnt to the ground. A website shows the destruction.

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Aerial of Gary Agarin's destroyed home in Fort McMurray where several family members lived. Screen shot from

Sanchez's home was in the Abasand neighbourhood. It and Beacon Hill look like war zones, with not a home left standing on most streets. A peek over the security fence reveals skeletonized trucks, charred lawn chairs, melted swing sets and burnt bicycles. Hazmat crews were busy spraying fluids to dampen the toxic ash on Thursday.

The disaster comes at a difficult time for Fort McMurray. Plummeting oil prices had cratered the Alberta economy, and cost tens of thousands of jobs.

The boomtown oil city had developed a heavy dependence on foreign workers to staff its hotels, coffee shops and gas stations.

Many oilsands workers also hired live-in nannies from the Philippines. That was Julaton's job when she immigrated to Fort Mac a decade ago. She still runs a support group for them, and said temporary foreign workers are vulnerable as a result of the disaster. Their jobs -- and chance to stay in Canada -- might have been lost in the fire.

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A lone bicycle sits beside a destroyed home in Beacon Hill, one of the hardest hit neighbourhoods in the May wildfire disaster. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

"Especially live-in caregivers -- a lot of them called me during the fire. Their employers don't know if they have a job [for them] when they get back," she said. Without an employer, temporary foreign workers could be forced to leave Canada. Many look for new jobs in a hurry, even though that's generally not allowed by the federal government.

'Our children will come here too. It's our home'

Caregiver Susana Arnecin, 39, is from Cebu City in the Philippines. Her Fort McMurray apartment was destroyed in the fire, and everything -- jewelry, her husband's favourite watch, priceless personal items -- was lost. She had no insurance.

"There's some things that money cannot buy," she said. Arnecin weeps while talking about the loss. "I don't believe. Up until now, I don't believe. I've seen the pictures [of the house]. It's very hard."

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Susana Arnecin mopping a Fort McMurray apartment floor on Thursday. She lost her entire apartment in the blaze. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

"Maybe life is like that. It's not easy. You need to go on," she sighed, while pausing in her mopping of a downtown Fort McMurray building.

The one-time caregiver now works 12-hour shifts cleaning apartment buildings. There's a lot of cleaning to do. Many residents came home to stinky fridges, dust covered homes and foot-high grass on their lawns.

Arnecin and her husband made a difficult decision -- they will stay in Fort McMurray, despite the upheaval. "Our children will come here too. It's our home. I feel it's our home," she said with tears.

For her and others, the choice is simple. Even modest incomes in a struggling Fort McMurray offer far more opportunity than back home in the Philippines, a country with one of the widest disparities between the rich and the poor in the world.

On Wednesday, many foreign workers drove back into Fort McMurray for the first time since the crisis. Everyone in town needed three things: water, food and gasoline. All are hard to come by. A boil water order is still in effect, and most grocery stores and fuel stations are not yet open.

'Fort McMurray strong'

But one Esso station and Mac's convenience store is open for business. Its manager, Indian immigrant, Sonny Katoch, lost his house in the blaze. He returned early to open the business. Jumping to the pumps keeps his mind off of his losses, he admitted.

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Fort McMurrray Esso/Mac's store manager Sonny Katoch opened up his gas pumps early on Thursday, despite losing his house in the blaze. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

"I just want to help everyone. I know my house is not there. I don't want to get emotional. I don't want to go there to have a look on it. I don't have time. I am here to serve people, my community."

"[My customers] are part of my family. Helping everyone out getting gas, getting food -- whatever they want."

Julaton and her entourage of 20 drove into Fort McMurray again on Thursday. Police wouldn't let them see her boyfriend's destroyed home -- too dangerous, they said. So the group, tighter than ever, did what Filipinos do -- cooked their traditional foods, and ate together.

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Just some of the 18 Filipinos who fled the Fort McMurray wildfire together in May, now enjoying a meal together on Thursday back in the semi-restored city. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

After a short prayer, one yells "Fort McMurray strong!" in a kitchen and they begin their feast of adobo and afritada -- pork strips and ribs. "It feels so good to be back," sighed Julaton. That feeling of home hits me when I went to my house."

She says Filipinos, like many from developing countries, are resilient. "We are used to hardships. So things like this [are] kind of normal for us."

"I am so thankful and blessed that I live in a community like this, and in a country like Canada."  [Tyee]

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