Wednesday, June 29, 2016

New Territory

I started out the year with the goal of getting big numbers for my birding list.   One of my challenges is that, while I do tend to see a lot of birds, I tend to be a bit limited on the number of species I see.  There are a few reasons for this, some of which are under my control.  One of the things I started doing last year was moving around more and exploring other locations.  (Two trips to BC really upped my totals for last year.)  I also tend to be more active with my birding in the first half of the year than in the fall but I have plans to remedy that as well.  A few trips to Calgary really helped me to get a good jump with birding numbers so my year got off to a pretty good start.

I was really hoping to branch out this year and get some big numbers.  May tends to be a pretty big month for me but the evacuation really put a dent in to my birding plans (at least locally).  On a positive note, since I was on the move I was able to spot my first Bald Eagle which was a nice treat.

I had planned a trip to Calgary for the day after the evacuation to see a concert and explore a bird sanctuary which of course didn't happen.  Fortunately, I should be able to remedy this a little later on. As it turned out, the day I returned to town was originally planned to be a travel day for me as well.....except I was expecting to be returning from a three day birding trip in Banff.  The loss of that trip stung a bit as I had planned it all out back in February but there will be other times, I'm sure.  

Even with the loss of these two trips, I've still managed to see a few new species as well as ones I hadn't seen before AND I've been able to tie the number of species I saw during all of last year.  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fat Cats

I didn't realize it was possible to be even more cynical of politicians until learning the news that our city council decided to give itself a nice little pay raise.  To be fair, not everyone on council is accepting this rather generous perk, including our mayor, but the mere fact that a cabal of politicians unilaterally decided to do this with no study or public input is pretty outrageous and certainly has a lot of people talking.  Councillors that were paid $36,000/year for their part-time council positions will now be making $75,000/year.  A troika (that would be Allan Vinni, Sheldon Germaine and Keith McGrath)  will be paid a full-time salary of $150,000/year. Yes, $150,000.  Completely unacceptable.   Period. 

Their weak excuse seems to be that as they will be working full-time as part of committee dealing with disaster relief efforts due to the fire, they somehow deserve the extra compensation.  Yes, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo now has three councillors who are paid more than their counterparts in cities such as Edmonton, Calgary Vancouver and Toronto.  Given that the past work of the clowns has seen our downtown engulfed in vacant lot after vacant lot, it is rather reprehensible that they somehow think this jackpot of cash will somehow make them more productive.  I'm not holding my breath.

In a community where people have lost their homes or their employment or even both,  certain municipal fat cats have decided to belly up to the public trough.  I'm not impressed as I found out today that the local living allowance I receive is going to cut effective this month.  The mental gymnastics these three fat cats will need to employ should they seek re-election will no doubt be interesting for residents and exhausting for the fat cats.

One of these fat cats, when questioned about this pay hike by local media reportedly launched in to a profanity-laced tirade, telling them "go make up the story and tell them whatever the f*** you want!"  and "This town's had enough negative sh*t!"  Classy.  Real classy.  To make the political optics even worse this particular work of art happens to be a lawyer.  Well Mr. Allan Vinni, I didn't vote for you in the last municipal election and I certainly won't be voting for you in the next one.  

Reportedly, these $150,000 salaries will remain in effect until Dec 31, 2017, so I do hope these three clowns will stop on pay day and look down from their ivory tower to see those who are struggling, those who must rely on food banks, those who are sleeping on couches, those who waiting to return to their homes, those who are living with the stress of not knowing whether the next bill they get will the straw that broke the camel's back for their finances. perhaps even those first responders who worked so tirelessly to save the homes of these fat cats from the flames. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

River Valley

One of the first places I wanted to take a look at when I returned to town earlier this month was the trail system along the west side of the river.  Not only is it the closest and best way for me to access the valley from my house but it is also an area where the forest fire raged and marks the closest point "The Beast" got to my street, which lies less than two blocks away.  It had actually been a couple of years since I had been down here so I was doubly curious to check it out.

Here you can see the damage at the trail head.

This is the view if you were to look immediately to the right from the photo above.  These houses lie in the Wood Buffalo neighbourhood and show just how close the fire got to some houses.

I've seen lots of burned out areas as the result of forest fires, not only here in Alberta but also in Saskatchewan and Northwest Territories as well.   While it doesn't all look like this, I found the damage in this particular patch tough to look at.

This sign warns about lighting open fires in the trail system.  Rather ironic.

Signs of regeneration were there however.  You can see the forest floor starting to green up again even in areas of significant burn out.

The trail was teaming with magpies and woodpeckers in particular along this stretch.  The only drawback for viewing was that it was a bit tricky to see dark-feathered fauna against a blackened forest.

The absence of leaves in some areas did provide some pretty good views of the valley though.  Normally I'd have to do a lot of traipsing around in the bush to get even a half-decent view.  With temperatures in the upper 20's I was happy that I didn't have to worry about that this time.

One of the many benches I passed that were burned.  I know I've sat on this very bench a few times during past trips, resting my legs, recording a bird or just enjoying the summer air.

It wasn't all death and destruction though.  I honestly have no idea what kind of flower this is but I found it standing all by itself about half way down the trail.

More signs of life returning.

I decided to turn around once the trail hit the road to the golf course.  This is actually just a little upstream from where the forest fire jumped the Athabasca before threatening Thickwood and encroaching in to Wood Buffalo and Timberlea.  As you can see though, there was plenty of green to be had and this happens to be among my favourite views down in to the valley.

This last photo is a shot very similar to the photo I use as the header for this blog.  It's slightly to the north as I wasn't keen on cutting down and then back up a steep slope to cross the road to get to the exact spot where the header photo was taken (it was just too warm out for that) BUT it is pretty close.  It looks more like a late fall photo than an early summer one, such was the damage done by the fire.

All in all though, this is a very dynamic place.  It still feels very familiar even if it now looks a bit different from before.  Like our town, the forest along the valley will also rejuvenate and re-build.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

At Least I Still Have A Roof

To say it was a wee bit gusty today would be an understatement.  The forecast was calling for winds of up to 70 km/hour.  The area I have been working in at my job this week is particularly sandy and dusty on a good day so the winds we got made it feel rather uncomfortable at times.  I think I now understand what it feels like to be sand-blasted.  At one point I took refuge in a work truck along with another co-worker to get a break from the pounding we were taking.  

We turned on the radio for a few minutes for news and at one point I made a remark about how, in the aftermath of the fire, there sure seemed to be a lot of commercials involving insurance companies.  I remembered that line very well when I got home last evening to see that Mother Nature had been unleashing her wrath against the chateau.

Initially this little piece caught my eye laying in the side yard and I assumed it was just a piece of detritus which had been launched over my fence by the winds from parts unknown.

It wasn't until I stepped back and looked up toward my roof that I noticed something a little bit different.

Oh well, I figured.  At least I still have a roof over my head.....and conveniently enough, getting in touch with insurance to get this fixed should be pretty easy to do in town at the moment.

Heading Back to Normal

Yesterday was my first official day back to work after being evacuated because of the forest fire.  The events of May led to the biggest work disruption in the history of the oil patch.  Slowly we are getting back to the work that has slowly been piling up, held in a state of suspended animation.  Six weeks is a long time to be off from work and I am slowly rediscovering muscles and tendons that went dormant.  It was also nice to see some familiar faces and have that sense of normalcy which had been so suddenly ripped away, restored after an extended period away.

I did deliberately use the title of "heading back to normal" for this post because while things are slowly getting there, I recognize that we still have a ways to go.  The neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways which were hardest hit by the fire are now effectively "no go" zones and access to them is strictly controlled.  It is unknown yet when, or even if, these places will be rebuilt and what they may look like in the future.

From my back yard I can easily here the school bells from the three schools in my neighbourhood.  The bells (more like a buzzer actually) sounds faithfully each day marking recesses and class dismissals and yet they sound for no one as there are no students.  All schools have shut down and local students find themselves finishing off the school year in communities scattered around the province and the country.  Schools located in affected neighbourhoods won't be opening along with the others in the fall and at least one will be closed for at least a full school year while damage is repaired.

Many of my favourite local trails are also closed or restricted meaning I will have to patiently await a time when I can access them and might have to get creative when it comes to finding places for hiking or bird watching.  Public transit also isn't back yet although the taxis are.  But if these are the biggest challenges  I face during these summer months then I won't complain.

Most of businesses are now up and running again and I believe the hospital is now good to go as well.    So we are getting there.  Some things are progressing faster than others but we will get there.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Fire Damage

I found myself with some time on my hands earlier this week so I decided to take a little stroll.  Having more or less gotten the house into a decent state, I needed to get out to stretch my legs.  I wanted to investigate a section of brush along the road down by a nearby golf course to check out fire damage and maybe spot a few birds for my year list.

Along the way, I passed a fire break which had been created between the back side and Dickinsfield and the Birchwood Trail system.

While you might think a burned out forest is a dead and lifeless void, we still have a great deal of green areas around and they are bustling with birds.  Woodpeckers, in particular, thrive in these areas as they make ideal conditions for feeding.  I didn't see anything interesting in the little march I passed along Real Martin Drive though I did spot my first Pileated Woodpecker of the year and possibly a Hairy Woodpecker, though distance and light conditions made it difficult to tell for sure.

It was also along this stretch that you can find some of the hardest hit areas of my part of the city.  Wood Buffalo lies directly to the west of Thickwood separated by a few open areas (which were really the only natural barriers preventing the fire from spreading into my immediate area.  

Its a little disorienting but these photos show the extent of the damage in the vicinity of Real Martin Drive and I believe Warren Way and Webb Drive.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Back To Work.....sort of

The extended time off has had me itching to get back to work, not necessarily because I love it but mainly because my return will mean I'm truly back to my regular routine.  With the events of the past month, it will also return a much-needed sense of normalcy and I'm sure sure I'm not the only one here striving for that.  

For about a week now I've been checking the bus schedules for work religiously to see when they would be back up and running again.  This past Monday would normally have been the first scheduled day of a shift for me and so I was hoping to be back by then.  I checked for bus schedules for Suncor Sunday night and they were still cancelled so I resigned myself to a few more days off.  But lo and behold, when I checked again Monday morning, the regular route schedule was back up.  Well, almost regular, as the fire had led to bus routes to affected neighbourhoods being substantially altered.  Normally I head out the door at 0630 but by the time I checked for a schedule around 0800 it was to find that, while buses were running again to site, I was already too late to get to work for Monday.  No problem, I thought, I'll head it back on Tuesday and get back at it.

So off to work I went yesterday only to arrive and find some confusion as to why I was there.  Turns out that while I had been away, work schedules had changed and we were expected to wait until we were officially called back in to work by my employer.  Given that during May I had been to Anzac, Conklin, Lac La Biche, Spruce Grove, and Grande Prairie and had been difficult to get in touch with, the confusion was understandable.  I worked until noon and then was driven home by my supervisor.  Work was short a few people so I know they would have loved to have the extra body but with my employer being a contractor, it's Suncor that calls the shots.  I expect to get called back in the next few days and if all goes according to plan (does it ever?) I expect/hope to be back to work next Tuesday.  My schedule has apparently reverted back to 7 days on/7days off which I've worked in the past.  

At any rate, it was great to see some familiar faces.  Most of the people from m regular shift were back and of course there were many stories to be told.  Sadly, I know of two people from work who lost their places due to the fire.  (One was my supervisor, whom I had worked for for much of the past 5 years.  The suite he was renting immolated with flame so he took the opportunity to retire.)

And so I find myself at home for a few more days at least but I've been making good use of my time sprucing up the house and getting in touch with at least 2 of my tenants who will be back in the coming days.  Slowly, I"m getting back to work and life is returning to a new normal.

Monday, June 6, 2016


I'm not sure at this point how many people have made their return to Fort McMurray but signs of the community coming back to life have been everywhere.  The biggest auditory hint of that is no doubt the sound of the countless lawnmowers and trimmers I've been hearing the past couple of days and they continue now even now as I type this.   

It's also hard not to miss the many visual signs expressing hope, grit, determination and thanks.  I'm not sure how many times I've walked past Fire Hall #3 off of Thickwood Drive but its presence definitely took on a whole new level of meaning when I walked by this afternoon. 

I've heard a few stories about firefighters leaving notes for evacuees explaining that they had to use their 4-wheeler to get quickly from point A to point B or to deliver water and other supplies to other fire fighters as they battled the Beast.   I've even heard of one group of firefighters leaving a note to thank a home owner for the use of their house after pulling a long, exhausting shift, which is why I found this little thank you written on the door of the Mac's convenience store in Wood Buffalo thanking them for washer fluid to be particularly poignant. 

Another sign in the neighbourhood using our flag  offered encouragement and hope.

....and another rather large sign close by thanked front line responders from Red Cross as well as West Jet.

I should mention too that, while I don't usually like to put in a plug for large businesses, I certainly will make an exception for  West Jet who not only offered me a great price on a flight to Edmonton, but also waived all baggage and handling fees for my luggage and for my cat Drifter.

Thank you one and all!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Welcome Home

After a very long day yesterday involving travel by plane, taxi, bus and van, I finally made it back to the house late last night.  Before getting back up to my neighbourhood, I was dropped off by the bus at a welcome centre at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, where a welcome centre had been set up returnees.  Here I was able to pick up a bag of groceries as well as some cleaning supplies which I was to discover would be put to good use.

An inspection of the outside of my home showed no fire damage whatsoever other than some superficial blackening of my front yard trees from the smoke.  As expected, I was greeted by quite the strong odour once I unlocked my door and stepped inside.  I knew where the culprit lay right away as I had forgotten to get rid of some food on the stove top before evacuating.  A full roast had been sitting giving off it's special perfume over the course of the past 33 days and a pot of boiled potatoes had been reduced to a think gooey sludge.  I have a pretty strong stomach but even this putrid mess was a challenge.  I opened every window that I could and by this morning I noticed a pretty big difference.  

Should I or shouldn't I?  I was debating with myself during the ride up whether or not I would be brave (or foolish) enough to open my fridge since I had heard  that parts of my neighbourhood had managed to keep power for most of the time we were evacuated.  In any event, because I was feeling quite tired after the 18 hours it took me to get back (that was fun) I opened the fridge without really thinking to find that it wasn't as bad as I feared and so first thing this morning I emptied out the fridge as well as the freezer which was also surprisingly tame.  Luckily the day of the evacuation was the last work day of the shift for me and a couple of my tenants so there wasn't a lot of food left sitting.  

I was up bright and early this morning to set to work cleaning and found the house had aired out pretty nicely over night.   The kitchen cleaned up pretty good and I took all the rotting food and got it into the garbage can where it now sits at the end of my driveway.  After getting a load of dishes in to the dish washer, I set to cutting the grass which now resembled a small forest.  Even with a small lawn it still took me the better part of an hour to cut both the back and the front.  A utility van from the gas company passed by so I was able to get my pilot light relit for the furnace and now have the luxury of hot water again. 

Late in the morning I decided to take a walk and clear my head.  A few pathways I normally take were closed  so I went instead to see where the fire had started to spread up the hill from the water plant and the golf course after it had jumped the river.

The photos below were taken about 5 minutes from my street.  The first photo looks pretty normal enough and really could have been taken on any given day.

The next two photos show much more of a contrast.  This was only a few feet from the road and while it looks pretty stark, there were plenty of areas that looked perfectly normal and I could hear an entire chorus of robins and chickadees singing away as if it a completely normal day.  I should add too that I didn't notice much in terms of a burnt smell even at this distance.  Depending on the direction and strength of the wind, you could definitely notice a slight smell of rotting garbage.

I'm not sure how many times I've walked by this green space in the course of the last six years but it separates a stand of trees with some burn out from the backs of the houses on the street right behind my street.  If it wasn't for this little oasis I just may have been returning to a very different scene on my street.

I'm not quite sure yet when I'll be back to work since I haven't heard anything but I expect to be back soon.  I'd like to be able to get out more in the coming days and check on some of the areas I usually hike and birdwatch in to see the extent of the damage.  For now though its time to relax a bit and breath a sigh of relief.  To say that the past 4 weeks have been a wee bit stressful at times would be very accurate and this whole experience has left me feeling very grateful for what I have.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Nature of the Beast

I suspect that this will be the last post I make before my hoped-for scheduled return to Fort McMurray on Saturday.  I'm trying my best to prepare myself mentally for the next few days though I've seen enough video online to help calm my nerves.  The one thing video can't show is odour which I suspect will be the one thing that will hit me once I unlock my front door.  In my mind, I have an idea of what to expect and my little inner sadist is curious.

My blog's header photo shows one of my favourite views of the Athabasca River valley.  If you were to be standing in the exact same spot (just a little north of the golf course) right now, much of what you see in this photo was damaged.  I'm hard-pressed to think of any of my favourite hiking and birding spots I've explored here that have emerged unscathed.

"The Beast" as it has been dubbed has certainly thrown life into a loop.  I do take a lot of comfort knowing that there are many others in the same boat and quite a few people who will find themselves worse off than my situation.  The latest number I've seen on its size is a whopping 582 000 hectares.  I tracked down a number of maps showing the size of the fire transposed on a few selected cities to give an idea of the area involved.