Torn apart by Canadian wildfire, families face anxious future

LAC LA BICHE/CONKLIN, Alberta (Reuters) - After she and her husband fled in different directions as a wildfire burned mercilessly through Canada’s Fort McMurray, Erin Naughton faces another difficult task: how to keep her family going until they can return to the city they call home.

Evacuee Erin Naughton, from the Fort McMurray wildfires, hangs out with her family at the Christina Lake campground in Conklin, Alberta, Canada, May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

She fled north to pick up one child, while her husband drove south as traffic and evacuation routes forced them apart on Tuesday.

Believing she will not be able to return to her scorched community for months, the restaurant manager is preparing to send her son and daughter to live with family in Edmonton in Alberta, and Victoria in British Columbia, so they can finish the school year, hundreds of kilometers (miles) apart.

“I’m going to be splitting up the family again,” said a tearful Naughton at the campsite near Conklin, a way station for evacuees from the massive wildfire that has burned much of Fort McMurray to the north.

“But that’s what a mom does, what’s right for her kids.”

The wildfire forced 88,000 people to evacuate this week and burned at least 1,600 buildings in the oil sands city in western Canada. Residents are not likely to return anytime soon, even to assess damage, according to officials.

In the evacuation centers in Lac La Biche or Edmonton, south of Fort McMurray, jugglers entertained and a Santa gave out toys, trying to bring smiles to little faces.

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While some families are sticking together, many others are being forced to consider a fresh start elsewhere - or separate from loved ones - after their homes were destroyed in a city where thousands were already unemployed from the oil industry slump.

Suncor contractor Derek Edwards said he may drive his family, including a daughter, 9, and son, 3, across the country to Ontario for work. Suncor has cut production due to the fires and dropping oil prices.

He has a job lined up, but is hesitant.

“There is so much uncertainty right now,” he said at the combination hockey arena-high school in Lac La Biche that is housing evacuees. “I need to take a few days before making decisions that impact my family long term.”

Philippines-born Kirby Abo is convinced it is time to leave.

Abo who works at a Fort McMurray bottle recycling plant is worried about lost income and pondering a move to much-larger Edmonton, 500 km (320 miles) away, to support his wife and three children, who joined him from the Philippines this year.

“I think (Fort Mac) is going to be a ghost town for quite awhile.”

Leslie Booker, a mother of two who works in Fort McMurray schools in early childhood development, does not plan to leave. Her house, visible through an online security camera video, has survived.

She plans to read and write with her kids, ages 11 and 7, instead of enrolling them in a new school this late in the academic year.

“Our life is here. We will go back and rebuild.”

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe