Terry Freund stands firmly on the charred ground and looks up at the sky made grey from smoke. Around him hundreds of fallen trees and piles of bramble are pushed off to the side. Just weeks before, this was all vibrant green forest. Now, he might as well be standing on Mars. “The landscape has changed for my kids’ foreseeable future. Like I’m not sure if my children will know what a tree looks like on Salt Mountain until they are in their late thirties or forties,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of emotional people coming home seeing their landscape changed so drastically.”
A heavy equipment officer, Freund was among a crew of volunteers who had been clearing trees around Fort Smith, ensuring the wildfires wouldn’t reach the community. When the Fort Smith evacuation order was first announced on August 12, he went with his family to Hay River to wait things out. But then Hay River announced its own evacuation order the following day. It was time to draw a line in the sand. As someone who was born and raised in Fort Smith, Freund decided that — after seeing his family off — he would stay behind and help however he could.
“My biggest concern was making sure my family was safe,” he says. “Once they got to Edmonton, I thought, I can finally get back to concentrating on work.”
Between the physically tough days that stretched into evenings creating fire breaks, Freund says there wasn’t much time to reflect on what was happening to his community. After all, they were “still in the fight,” he says.
Now, as the weather cools, he is still involved in the process of rebuilding infrastructure before the winter comes, but is optimistic that eventually the landscape will recover.
Overall, he’s grateful. Freund knew he could rely on his crew, who he says worked “exceptionally well together” during the long days clearing the brush. But there are so many more to thank. Everyone from the grocery store clerks to the cleaners, who made it possible for volunteers and workers to stay behind. Because of everyone’s collective effort, Fort Smith residents were able to safely return to the place they know and love, even if the surroundings look a little alien.
Trees will regrow and a community can rebuild. Freund says what matters is Fort Smith will survive. “Everyone has a home to come back to.”