On May 3, 2016, in my hometown of Fort McMurray, Alberta, I fled my city in fear of what is now known as the largest forest fire in Alberta’s history. We woke up that morning to blue skies and warm weather. It wasn’t until later in the day that smoke began to arise around us. We knew that there were forest fires close by but we thought nothing more of it. Growing up in Northern Alberta we were surround by the Boreal Forest so forest fires were a common occurrence. As if routine, the fires would start due to dry conditions and unfortunate events, the local fire department would get called, water bombers would come in, and in a matter of days the fire would be out. This time was different. This time multiple fires would start, multiple fire departments would get called throughout North America and the world, multiple water bombers would come in and 88,000 people would be forced to evacuate their homes. Now, one month after this horrific event, I’ve been able to look back on my experience and piece it all together through texts, calls and memory, creating a timeline of what I personally experienced the day we evacuated.
The smoke started to get darker, knowing it was no longer burning just trees my Mom decided to wake up my Dad up so that he could head into work early to see if they needed help. He’s a Battalion Chief at one of the local oil companies and was supposed to work a night shift that evening.
Word got out that the neighbourhood I grew up in at the south end of town was under mandatory evacuation. They were told to head to the large sports centre that was located in the middle of the city which was deemed safe due to being on an island. People were being advised not to head South due to the highway entrance being lined with towering flames from the raging fire.
My parents decide that we needed to fuel the vehicles for the odd chance that we would get evacuated as well.
My grandmother who lives in southern Alberta calls and tells me that we should come there where it’s safe. She asks what it’s like around our house and I explain how I can see nothing but smoke behind the houses in my neighbourhood. Tears began to form in my eyes as the panic truly sets in that my city was in danger.
My phone rings and it’s my childhood friend who’s attending University in Calgary, Alberta. She asks if her Mom and two pets can meet her Dad, who’s at work, at our place instead of going to the now packed evacuation centre. I told her of course they could knowing I wanted to help in any way that I could. Before hanging up she confirmed that her parents would be meeting at my home on the North end of town.
Parents return with no fuel as the city was bumper to bumper traffic and they were unable to make it to any gas stations. We turned on the news on to see if we were able to get an idea of the extent of the current situation. At this time they were just repeating the news we’d already known.
My work contacts me confirming that the store was closed due to staff needing to leave and make sure that their homes were okay.
My friends Dad arrives to our house.
As my Dad gets ready for work he tells us to pack about a weeks worth of clothes and anything we deemed important incase we were to evacuate.
Radio station is forced to evacuate so they head to a new location where they could continue to broadcast.
Neighbours knock on the door, they weren’t able to get any fuel either and asked if we had any in the garage to spare. We managed to give them what little fuel we had left.
Friends Mom still has not arrived due to being stuck in traffic. Taking advantage of the time we have in our home, my mother and I start to pack. I had no idea what to even consider packing as I stood in the middle of my room. My suitcase laid in the middle of my floor with my basic necessities thrown in. I looked around but couldn’t decipher what I considered replaceable and irreplaceable, the majority of the things I had I’d just considered “stuff”. Stuff that I could purchase anywhere. From here I started to grab scrap books, photos and memorabilia, items in which, if I lost my home, I could not replace.
Finally my Friends Mom made it to our house, having nothing but the clothes on her back along with her dog and cat. We tried to comfort her as best we could. She tells us of her experience and how she could see smoke across from her house in the forest and how the police knocked on her door forcing her out, not giving her a chance to grab anything more before being forced to leave. It had taken her nearly 4 hours to complete the journey to my house that would normally take 10-15 minutes. The entire city was in a panic at this point.
My Dad leaves for work knowing the traffic will be bad. At this point, people have been told to head North of town due to the South end being in flames making Highway 63 South inaccessible and the evacuation center being full. He tells us to pack up the truck and leave as soon as we can before he gives us a hug and heads to work.
After relocating, the radio cuts out for the last time, leaving nothing behind but a repeating alert stating that the city is under evacuation. At this point the entire city is under mandatory evacuation.
My friend from out of town calls me in a panic. She sees my home town on the news and wants to know if there’s anything she can do to help us. I explain how we don’t have a set plan yet seeing as the only highway out of town is closed due to fire and if we were to head North of town we could get trapped, as you can only go so far North before you run out of road.
I continue to pack and receive another call from a friend from college. He asks if there’s anything he can do to help. At this point I start to get scared. Knowing that people from all over are hearing about this fire starts to show me how serious this event is.
My brother calls saying that he and the couple he rents from are on their way out of town. They heard that the Southbound Highway is now open and they plan to head that way and we will meet at our family’s place in Athabasca.
My brothers calls again confirming that the flames are still raging but the Southbound Highway is now open. He also confirms the damage so far and says that our old neighbourhood looks as though it’s gone.
We load our belongings into the truck. As we do we see the few people left on our street doing the same. All throwing what they could into their vehicles and syphoning gas from lawn mowers hoping to get enough to make it somewhere safe.
My friends Mom and Dad decide it’s time for them to head out as well seeing the whole city was leaving. Her Mom decided to head South, like us, and her Dad had to head back to work seeing as he was the only mechanic for the fire hall in which my dad worked at and would be needed.
Mom finally agrees that it is time for us to make a move and get out of town. She wants to head North and be with my Father but I fear that with the way the fire was going, we would get trapped up there. We decide to head South instead. Knowing we were low on fuel, we weren’t hopeful we would make it very far but we knew it would be enough to get us safely away from the fire. As I locked up my home I couldn’t help but cry, as I didn’t know whether or not I’d be seeing my home again.
Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic we’ve only made it halfway through town. With everything being pitch black due to the power being out downtown all we see are the lights from the vehicles stuck in traffic and the flames that surround us.
My brother calls and gives us direction to where he is pulled over for the night. Knowing that he is hours ahead of us and that we wouldn’t have enough fuel to get there, we say goodnight and agree to get in touch again when they get on the road in the morning.
We see a truck pulled over filling up vehicles with fuel. With high hopes we pull over to see if they have any diesel. No luck, they only have gas and we have to carry on our journey with only a few kilometres of fuel left.
After driving no faster then 40 km/h for 5 hours we had to pull over and wait for fuel. We pulled safely onto the side of the road where several other cars had stopped for the night. Family just a few hours South offered to bring us diesel but seeing as it was now 3 am we didn’t want to have us both stuck in the bumper to bumper traffic on the highway. Not knowing what to do, I posted a FaceBook status saying my mother and I had run out of diesel and were at marker 120. Within minutes I had a friend tag me in a post that had a number to call if you ran out of gas. Immediately I called the number and after getting in contact with 3 other people we finally got in touch with someone who was delivering diesel. I told him where we were and he said it would take an hour or so to get to us, so we wait.
With little sleep, we still have no fuel and have not heard from the guy who’s supposed to be delivering us diesel. I call the number of the guy who’s supposed to be bringing us fuel again and this time there is no answer. I call the original number and the guy says to pop the hood of our truck so that anyone with fuel will know to stop.
As I walk back around to the side of the truck, after popping the hood, two trucks pull up. They ask if we’re okay and I reply saying that we’ve run out of diesel. Immediately they reach into the box of the first truck and pull out two full gerry cans of diesel. Words could not express how relieved I felt. As two men filled up our truck a woman offers us water and food and explains how they’ve come up from Fort Saskatchewan to help fuel stranded vehicles. Without accepting any payment the three of them wished us well and got in their trucks and carried on. We got in the truck and continued on what was now our two-day journey.
After being on the road for just over an hour we were yet again stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. We get word that there’s been an accident and try to patiently wait.
Having not moved in over an hour Mom decides to reroute and back track to the Plamondon turn off which would bypass the area and of the accident. Cautiously we pull into the ditch and cross over to the Northbound lane, which has now designated one of their lanes for Southbound traffic. Once safely across we head North.
Now that we were safely on our way again we contact my brother who has yet to get back on the highway after stopping for the night, and let him know of the accident and where to go to bypass the traffic.
My Mom and I make it safely to the town of Athabasca and our first stop is to get fuel yet again. While fuelling up my Mom saw some people filling up gerry cans and loading them up in their truck to help fuel the remaining stranded vehicles. In hopes to pay it forward my Mom gives them some money towards their bill knowing that it was people like them who helped us when we were in need.
After our 13 hours, that would normally take 3, we have finally made it to my Aunt’s home in Athabasca where we are able to sleep comfortably for the first time in nearly two days.
Now, one month after being evacuated from the fire, now known as “The Beast” we have been able to head to our still standing home. Within one month “The Beast” took away the neighbourhood I grew up in, my friends homes, my Aunt and Uncles home, as well as countless other homes, and has even played a role in the death of our family friends daughter and nephew. As tragic as this whole event has been, and continues to be, I can’t wait to help to rebuild my city. I will never forget the hospitality that my province and country provided throughout the duration of our evacuation and I will forever be grateful for the support of my family and for the first responders, like my Father, who continue to fight this battle.
“We are here, and we are strong!” – Darby Allen