FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Between May and December of last year, Chris Flett went through two life-changing events: his house burned down and he won the lottery.
Flett, 34, recalls fetching his daughter from school and rushing home to grab some of his belongings as a forest fire began to threaten his hometown of Fort McMurray.
The fire, nicknamed “the beast” for its ferocity and unpredictability, began burning deep in the bush about May 1 and spread into the northern Alberta city on May 3, forcing 88,000 people from their homes for a month or more.
In all, almost 2,600 dwellings were destroyed, including Flett’s house in the hard-hit Beacon Hill neighbourhood.
Flett, business agent with the International Union of Operating Engineers, went back in early June with some friends to take stock of the damage.
“It was incredibly tough to watch everything you worked for in your life to be sitting there and be nothing but ashes.”
He dug through the rubble for six straight days in 30-degree heat.
“Came out with a couple of pieces of metal and a couple pieces of porcelain, some old tools.”
The only thing he could recover of any sentimental value was a piece of a family urn.
Flett’s fortunes shifted six months later when he won more than $400,000 in the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation Mighty Millions Lottery 50/50 jackpot.
“Disbelief, probably a little bit of fear, happy, sad,” Flett says of his reaction to the win.
“It was a roller-coaster of emotions, it really was.”
With the cash infusion, Flett didn’t have to make concessions as he planned the rebuild of his home. He was also able to help out his mother, whose home was under-insured, and his younger brother, who had no insurance for the place he was renting with friends.
So far, he’s given $35,000 to $40,000 to charities that helped out with the disaster and intends to donate more.
Teen Time of Edmonton has been a priority. The charity, which runs Christian summer camps at a ranch north of Edmonton, took in many Fort McMurray evacuees, including Flett, his fiancee and eight-year-old daughter.
After months spent at the ranch, in his camper, with friends and lastly in a rented house, Flett and his family are looking forward to settling into their newly rebuilt home in Beacon Hill in June.
As the one-year mark since the fire nears, emotions are mixed.
“There’s still pain. You still suffer. Every now and then you go to grab something and you realize you don’t own that anymore and that doesn’t exist anymore.
“But for the most part, we’ve stayed in a good spot, because we’ve made really good progress.”