Reflecting on the Fort McMurray Wildfire

The headline in the Globe and Mail said “Fort Mac rebounding quickly, CMHC says.” I’ve visited our northern neighbour half a dozen times since the wildfire and that’s certainly my impression: a resilient community that is getting on with the business of recovery and rebuilding. For me, it all began because our colleagues in other community foundations asked us to host a fund to help the social sector recover and rebuild after the devastating wildfire last year.

Community foundations here in Alberta and in other provinces contributed more than $1.3 million to assist. In order to make good use of their generosity, I needed to get to know the key players in the community and have a better handle on the local environment.

Now, almost a year since my first visit, there has been solid research conducted about the challenges facing the “social profit” sector (the way in which the non-profit sector identifies itself in Fort McMurray), multi-stakeholder summits have been held, their new infrastructure organization, FuseSocial, has come into its own and plans have been made for the future. For our part, we have made the recovery fund available to support larger projects in collaboration with corporate and other funders in the community and have assisted projects and initiatives that other funders were unable to address.

Through August, we have issued grants to eight social profit organizations in Fort Mac to the tune of more than $400,000. A few more good applications were being reviewed at the time of writing. The community is recovering but challenges remain. Almost a year later, some organizations are still short of staff, board members and volunteers. And other organizations face increasing demand for services from people experiencing fire-related trauma or the continuing effects of the economic downturn (which started well before the wildfire).

Nevertheless, progress is being made and we have been able to assist in some significant ways through grants from the recovery fund. Another very exciting development is that Fort McMurray now has another resource for the future: Wood Buffalo Community Foundation has been formed and already received its charitable status. Soon the community itself will have another tool to do work that they value most. As for the recovery fund, we are exploring with its donors the possibility of transferring the balance of the fund to the new community foundation.

In the face of a major crisis, timely assistance from away can be a real help. The next logical step is to enhance the community’s own capacity to respond, recover and build a stronger future. It is good to see that happening so quickly and so well in Fort McMurray and it has been an honour to play a small part it in. All the best to Wood Buffalo Community Foundation!