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Cossa recounts experiences through fires, flooding and COVID-19 in hometown Fort McMurray

Andy Devlin

Fort McMurray, Alberta has certainly endured more than its share of hardships over the past four years.

Raging fires that enveloped large pockets of the city in May 2016.

Flooding that severely impacted the downtown core just months ago in April.

Then, being left at the mercy of the COVID-19 pandemic while plummeting oil prices threaten the livelihoods of so many people in Alberta’s predominant job sector.

It’s been a lot to face for those who call ‘Fort Mac’ home – like Sebastian Cossa and his family.

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Cossa was just 13 years old when the fires occurred and remembers it well; an experience which began with sudden disorder and culminated with his family – dad Gianni, mom Sandra and brother Nicholas – relocating for nearly three months.

“I was driving with my mom one day, and we saw so much smoke,” recalled Cossa. “I remember asking her if we were going to have to evacuate. There was so much uncertainty that I can remember leaving my door open when I went to bed that night so I could hear if someone came knocking to tell us we had to leave right away. I wanted to be ready.”

Three days later, Cossa was at school and ready to head out for lunch. That’s when everything took a rapid turn.

“We walked outside and the entire sky was just red and black. I went home, quickly finished packing some things, then we were evacuating.”

Citizens depart Fort McMurray amidst the wildfires in May, 2016 (Photo courtesy DarrenRD)

After attempting to migrate north of the city, the Cossa family was greeted with news that the highway was closed because of the way the fire was spreading.

Instead, they eventually headed south on Highway 63 towards Edmonton where the family had relatives. By his own recollection, what would typically be about a five-hour-or-so drive turned into a trip like no other the family had ever experienced.

“We left our house around 4:30 PM in the afternoon and finally got there around 7:30 AM the next morning,” Cossa said. “Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the two-lane highway, and some cars were even pulled over to the side because they had run out of gas from being stuck on the road for so long.

“We found out later that behind us, the fire was catching up to a friend in their vehicle, so he actually had to get out of his Jeep and run ahead to his parents’ vehicle who were ahead of him on the highway.”

It would be close to three months before the Cossa family would return to Fort McMurray, spending the majority of that time with another relative in Calgary. While there, Sebastian was able to attend Edge School – a private academy with a focus on student-athletes – as the facility opened its doors to those affected by the fires.

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When they were eventually able to make their way back up north they, like nearly 90,000 total citizens who were forced to vacate for months on end, were able to see for themselves the level of destruction that had engulfed the city. The fires spared few, but the Cossa family considered themselves fortunate after absorbing the level of damage to their home in Timberlea, an area in a northern, slightly more elevated part of the city.

“Once we finally got back home there was a lot of smoke damage, but we were extremely lucky that it didn’t burn down,” Cossa said.

“The fire came as close as two blocks away from our house.”

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Four years later, in the midst of the building chaos and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, a 25-kilometre ice jam caused flooding and forced 13,000 people to retreat from the downtown core.

The floods occurred just weeks after the WHL season was officially cut short and Cossa had returned home.

“It was crazy to see another serious thing like that happen here,” he said. “We were lucky again in that our home was safe, but the biggest worry for us was the bridges. The water was rising, and if it flooded the bridges we would be stranded without a way to access downtown or travel south to exit the city.”

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Certainly experiencing what they have has brought the Cossa family close together, but theirs is a bond that was never in question. They choose to find the good in these extenuating circumstances, and appreciate the time it’s given them together.

“The season being cut short, then coming home and worrying what was going to happen with the flood; that was tough,” Cossa said.

“But honestly, this time has been amazing. I haven’t spent even close to this much time at home for about three or four years since I was still playing bantam.”

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When it comes to pinpointing the best part about being home, he let his stomach do the talking.

“I’ve missed my mom’s cooking,” laughed the 6-foot-6, 206-pound goaltender. “She’s my homemade chef and makes me about five or six meals a day. She’s definitely the busiest person in the house right now.”

He’s certainly encountered more than the average teenager, but it’s helped to develop the increased level of maturity he exhibits at his young age. He carries with him a perspective that even though these events – the fire, the flood and the pandemic – have come at a high cost for a lot of people, they’ve also given him something back.

“Being home for this long, sleeping in my own room and spending time with my family; I’m thankful for that.”

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