The timing of the call was very ironic. On September 21st, a colleague and I left Ottawa by plane for Fort McMurray, AB to attend a ceremony to mark the planting of trees after the wildfires of 2016. After a summer of humid, hot temperatures in Ottawa, the weather forecast that day there called for above-seasonal temperatures (+28oC) followed by a drop in temperatures with rain that afternoon. We landed in Fort McMurray in the late afternoon and were heading back from looking at one of the first areas that we helped plant when my colleague received a message. “Mike”, he said, “I think there’s been a tornado back at home.” It seemed incredible. “A tornado?” I asked. “Really?” In fact, there may have been more than one, as reports started coming in from various communities in the Ottawa-Gatineau area.
We were literally going from one tree-related climate change-activated event to another. We both called home to see if everyone was alright. They were. Next call was to work. One colleague did not fare so well. Her home was damaged. I ended up speaking with her directly on the Sunday and it turned out that the roof was ripped off part of her house and her carport had landed on their recently purchased vehicle and she had lost a beautiful sugar maple and a white birch. It was so sad to hear – it was her first house. Her first new car. I asked if she needed help. She, being the person she is, replied, “No Mike we will be fine – we’re staying at my in-laws until the power comes back – you’re in Fort McMurray don’t worry about it”. I asked the question, “Yes but with all those trees down, your yard must be a mess”. “Well” she said, “it really is”. And with that, I told her that after landing in Ottawa at about 3:00 p.m., I’d go home, get my chainsaw and trailer and come and help. Although I didn’t manage to do that much in the two hours I was there (my chainsaw was too small for the big sugar maple), I could tell that my presence was appreciated. The neighbourhood looked like a war zone – people were walking around aimlessly with trees, pieces of roof, insulation and lots of downed wires everywhere….
The irony for me, the President of Tree Canada helping a colleague whose life was affected by a tornado just after returning from a trip to Fort McMurray to plant trees from their wildfires, could not be easily dismissed. So was the irony of how close the disaster had been to my own life and (unfortunately) so many others across Canada. So was the irony of the fact that the tornadoes hit Dunrobin, Ontario and the Mont-Bleu area of Hull in Québec and how the tornado did not pay attention to either provincial or political boundaries. And even further, how it happened just before National Forest Week and National Tree Day.
Later that week, I went on to do television interviews on what people should consider in managing their trees after a tornado. One of those interviews was done in the Arlington Woods area – a neighbourhood of homes built in the 1960’s in a sandy area of very large white and red pines. There were logging trucks taking the downed trees away. Neighbours were piling brush taken down by the storm. The area smelled like a clear-cut (and, as a forester who worked in the north and the B.C. coast earlier in my career, I know what a clear-cut smells like).
These incidents followed upon a legacy of others that Tree Canada has responded to: 1996 – the Saguenay, QC floods; 1998 – the Eastern Canada Ice Storm; 2003 – Hurricane Juan in Nova Scotia; 2004 – the Kelowna Wildfires; 2006 – the Stanley Park windstorms; and more.
The calls from the Ottawa-Gatineau area started coming into our office – were we going to help replace the trees? We started looking at pursuing yet another Operation ReLeaf program to help the people in our own backyard, which will be called Operation ReLeaf – Ottawa-Gatineau Tornado. Once again, we will be looking to our sponsors, our donors and friends to commit the funds to help us help our neighbours, family and friends.
Hopefully in 2019 we will see trees planted back on their properties.
As for the event in Fort McMurray, it was incredible. We celebrated our partnerships with our sponsors, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Metis, community associations and others in the planting of over 43,000 trees, both seedlings and large caliper trees in areas that had burnt in the 2016 wildfires that consumed 1,300 homes in the city of 75,000. It was a time of celebration after so much misery and reconstruction.
Unfortunately, we know this the scenario will repeat itself and Tree Canada will be there – because trees are very much the quintessential final touches of “normalcy” that people need to get their lives back to… “normal”.
Michael Rosen, R.P.F., President