Fort McMurray recovery from 2016 forest fire plods along

Fort McMurray (Canada) (AFP) - A few late-season snowflakes flutter over Fort McMurray, their whiteness contrasting against surrounding forests blackened one year ago by the most destructive wildfire in Canadian history.

"You don't know how it feels until you lose it all", says Steven Menard, 53, holding up a charred pair of his grandson's first ice skates, plucked from the rubble of his home.

On May 1, 2016, a brushfire in the Canadian oil patch erupted into a huge blaze that over the following two months would engulf nearly 600,000 hectares of the boreal forest and force the evacuation of an entire city of 100,000 people.

Menard arrived in Fort McMurray as a teenager four decades ago. Little remains of the Abasand neighborhood where his house once stood.

"I still cry every day," Menard told AFP, confessing that he worries his nightmarish memories of the wildfires will forever haunt him. "But," he adds, "Fort McMurray needs builders, not whiners."

"We have to keep a positive attitude," he says. With the help of his son-in-law, he has been working day and night since November, rain or shine, to rebuild his house.

With a smile, the former industrial equipment salesman says he has lost 42 pounds (19 kg) working on the house. He shows photos of himself on his smartphone with a pudgier face. "It's therapeutic," he says.

Leaving the city and relocating was not an option, he said. "I wasn't going to finish the story this way. We'll leave on our terms, not on Mother Nature's terms."

That said, he still has no idea what the future holds for him.

As winter tiptoes away and yields to spring, several of his former neighbors stop by to check on his progress, and on the rebuilding of their own homes.

"We're putting back together our neighborhood," Menard says. "This devastated land is going to turn green again."

- Hammers and saws -

Elsewhere in Fort McMurray, the buzz of electric saws and the blows of hammers ring out, blending into a din hinting at renewal.

Despite the best efforts of government officials and residents, however, one year has not been enough to wipe away the sorrow and erase the scars left by the disaster.

Oil company employee Bilal Abbas, 38, saw his home destroyed in the side-view mirror of his car as he fled with his daughter and pregnant wife.

"I would have liked my second daughter to be born here, just like me," he says with a smile.

Nearly 100,000 people hastily evacuated the city as it was quickly engulfed in flames, grabbing whatever they could as they fled, embers splashing on the hoods of their vehicles.

Melissa Blake, the mayor of Fort McMurray, estimates that one year later 15,000 people have still not returned. Many destroyed homes have not been rebuilt.

Oil prices plunged prior to the fire and several companies have since then cut back investment in the oil sands, or quit altogether. Without the promise of a job and a better future, many people are hesitant to return.

"Many people prefer to take the payout from the insurance, sell their land and resettle elsewhere to avoid the uncertainty in Fort McMurray," said Abbas.

All around in the hard-hit Waterways district there are vacant lots that have been cleared of debris. Eight out of 10 homes here were destroyed in the fire.

Here and there, wooden frames of new homes under construction point to a rebound. However, it is slow to take off.

"These are all for sale," Abbas says of the empty lots. "But nobody is buying."

Despite all the uncertainty, he said he returned and is staying in a rented home until he can settle with his insurance company and arrange to have his home rebuilt -- a goal for many that remains up in the air.

"I want to build my new home. I would like to continue being here in this community. But if I'm going to suffer as a result financially, it's going to be tough for me to rebuild," he said.

"Even if I'd wanted to go somewhere else, my wife would have never allowed it," he quipped, glancing over at Lina who is playing with their two daughters, aged six years and 10 months.

"We love this place too much to leave it."

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