Renewal After Wildfire

John Alma was in Toronto when he got the distressing text message from his wife back home in Fort McMurray. His family was being evacuated as a massive wildfire encroached on their neighbourhood.

John tells the story of his family’s harrowing escape from the fire as if he had been there with them. Here and there he pauses, overcome with emotion, even though he has told this story over and over and is generously sharing it with his union.

John’s wife told him the sky was pitch black and looked like an apocalypse. She had 20 minutes to gather their 13-year-old daughter, 18-year old son, their cat and their dog. They went to John’s sister’s home in another neighbourhood. There, the family hung out, watching the news, until this neighbourhood, too, was evacuated.

Highway 63 South is the only way out of town. But the fire had jumped the southbound highway, forcing authorities to send people north –. towards the camps of Alberta’s oil fields.

After two hours of driving north, crawling in slow traffic, the family heard that the southbound highway was open again. They also knew via social media and the radio that the camps were full. So they turned around and drove back south.

The hotel at the south end of town was engulfed in flames as they passed it. Once out of town, cars were using all four lanes of the divided highway to head south because no one was headed north. And people were running out of gas.

As his family was driving the highway with flames on either side, John was in Toronto at TWU, USW Local 1944’s Annual Delegated Meeting (ADM) as a delegate and finance committee member. John is one of the 42 members of Unit 210 of Local 1944 who work for Telus in Fort McMurray.

Homes Burnt To Ashtrays

Several members lost their homes and many others experienced varying damage.

Like John, Jose Acevedo wasn't at home in Fort McMurray as the fires reached the built-up communities. He was in Edmonton with his wife and three-year-old son en route to a vacation in Cuba. On Tuesday, May 3, he got a call from a co-worker that workers had been told to go home early because evacuations had been called – providing people time to collect valuables or paperwork. Jose had to decide whether to continue on the trip to Cuba, or cancel and stay in Edmonton to wait and see. The family decided to go to Cuba.

Checking social media every day, Jose’s wife was concerned about their house. Jose didn’t have any specific updates though, until his return to Edmonton on May 13. Google maps had shown them that their neighbourhood was destroyed, but Jose wanted confirmation.

Jose called his supervisor to check on his work schedule. It was the supervisor who broke the news that Jose’s house was gone.

Jose didn’t go back to see the destruction right away. Telus gave him a week off to deal with paperwork and insurance and stock up on supplies and basic needs for his family. The company found work for Jose in Edmonton until the family returned to Fort McMurray in mid-June.

The first time Jose went to see where his house had been, he couldn’t get to the lot – authorities had limited access to the burnt-out areas. But Jose could see that everything was flattened – just rubble and ashes were left.

When he was allowed into the neighbourhood, Jose borrowed a white jumpsuit and wore a facemask to protect himself from the chemicals and pollutants in the air and debris. The ashes from the fire were white; what was once a house looked like an ashtray.

Jose is philosophical about the loss. “I have been affected by other issues in my life; losing family members back home in El Salvador during the civil war. I take life as it comes. My wife was very affected. But we are lucky that we were away – we escaped that part,” he says, referring to the experience of driving through flames that John’s family went through.

Stepping Up

Ivana Niblett knew that Local 1944 members had homes in the path of the wildfire that came to be known as The Beast. Now working in Edmonton for USW Local 1-207, Ivana used to be one of the National Vice-Presidents for the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU). TWU merged with the USW in 2014, becoming TWU, USW Local 1944. Ivana worked closely with the Fort McMurray local and has ongoing friendships and connections with the members there.

When she heard about the evacuations, Ivana called John to see if anyone in the unit needed anything. That’s when she found out that John was in Toronto and concerned about his family who were making their way to Edmonton.

Ivana jumped into action, booking the last room in a hotel she knew so that John’s family would have a place to stay when they made it to Edmonton.

Solidarity – We are Givers

The urge to help others in times of need is inherent in us as humans and as union members. When things feel helpless, the union offers a structure for coming together and making a difference through our collective efforts.

As the Fort McMurray delegate at the Toronto meetings of Local 1944, John was the local’s direct connection to its 42 members living through the disaster, even as it was unfolding.

So the union stepped up. TWU, USW Local 1944, its members and units across the country made donations to Unit 210.

Local 1944 raised $15,000 at the ADM and International President Leo W. Gerard pledged to triple that. Quebec units of Local 1944 collected boxes of clothing, toys and household basics to ship to the members.

“The immediate generosity and willingness to support each other during tragedy was inspiring,” said Lee Riggs, TWU, USW Local 1944 National President.

Working out of Calgary, Juanita West is the Local Union Representative for the Fort McMurray members in Unit 210. Also attending the Local 1944 meeting, she got on the phone, calling all the members to make sure they were okay and find out what they needed.

Marty Gibbons, President of USW Local 1-417 based in Kamloops, B.C., along with Ray White, President of USW Local 1-207 in Edmonton, Ivana’s local, put out a call through Bob Matters to Wood Council locals, raising more than $8,000. Local 1-207 topped that up to $10,000.

Steelworkers Humanity Fund: $79,000 in donations from Steelworkers 

In May the Steelworkers Humanity Fund made an immediate $10,000 donation to the Red Cross’s Fort McMurray wildfire relief appeal, followed by a $69,000 contribution split evenly between the Canadian Mental Health Association (Wood Buffalo region), the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association and the Edmonton Food Bank. The fund appreciates the $29,000 in special contributions made by USW locals across the country and the USW staff union in response to the union’s emergency wildfire appeal. 

“The wildfire and evacuation have deeply affected individuals and families, not only the physical destruction but the emotional trauma that many continue to struggle with,” said Ken Neumann, USW National Director and President of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund. 

Notley: Steady Hand, Open Communication

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has been praised for her handling of the crisis and its aftermath. As the fire raged, she provided daily updates and secured extended Employment Insurance coverage for those affected. Notley has insisted that no rent gouging would be tolerated during the rebuilding period.

Jose and John give credit to officials on every level that enabled almost 90,000 people to evacuate safely.

Back To Work

John Alma stayed six days in the hotel in Edmonton before returning to work in Fort McMurray. He was one of the first allowed back in. “I’m like a shark; I have to keep moving.”

Authorized by his job to access the neighbourhood where his house was, he could tell that his home had survived the fire.

In late July, Local 1-207 hosted a barbecue at John’s house for Unit 210 members. The event was an opportunity for the members to talk and reconnect.

“We really appreciated it. It showed that we are not alone; that there are people thinking about us,” said John.

Ivana, along with Scott Ruston from Local 1-207, drove up from Edmonton on behalf of the Wood Council, bringing Safeway gift cards for the members from the donations they had raised, demonstrating the USW’s solidarity for all that they had been through. Two months after the fires, Ivana didn’t have to look far for devastation, but was surprised to see green ground of new growth – offering hope for renewal.

At a meeting in August, Unit 210 members reconvened in a Fort McMurray community centre to share their stories and receive the contributions Juanita had received from across the USW.

What stands out from the stories of the Unit 210 members is their resilience. Only one of the members has left, taking retirement and moving away because the air quality following the fires was aggravating his asthma. The rest have stayed and are recovering within the community. Jose and his family are living in a rental apartment until they can rebuild.

“We are a stronger, tighter-knit community of people who have chosen to live here. We want to be here. This is my home,” said John.

Fort McMurray Facts

  • Fort McMurray: 400 km northeast of Edmonton
  • Population: 61,000
  • Evacuees displaced due to wildfires: 90,000 (from Fort McMurray and surrounding communities)
  • Wildfire area: 590,000 hectares including the portion in Sask.; more than 1,000 km2 covering an area larger than Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax or Winnipeg
  • 2,400 buildings destroyed, including 20% of homes
  • Wildfire began on May 1, 2016; declared under control on July 5, 2016

Make Sure You’re A Contributor

Through the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, USW members are part of helping those in need with your pennies-per-hour contributions deducted from your paycheques.

Find out if your local has negotiated contributions to the Steelworkers Humanity Fund in your collective agreement. Check your paystub or ask your Unit Chair or Local Union President. Contributions are tax deductible and your donations make a difference. 

This article appears in the November 2016 edition of USW@Work magazine. 

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