Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fort McMurray Wildfire: My Evacuation

I'm from Fort McMurray. Did you know that? Probably not. I've always been pretty quiet about where I'm from. You know... for privacy. Or something.

So yes. I'm from Fort McMurray. But I'm not living there right now because my entire city of 88,000 plus or minus are evacuated and not allowed to go back. Because fire.

It seems that the news has been all over the world, so I suspect you've heard about it. 88,000 people slow fleeing for their lives. Fire fighters working 21 hours a day to put out "the beast" as it's become called.

This is my story.

The morning was clear and lovely. It was hot out. I had a meeting and we chatted like everything was normal, planning for a special needs camp we were to put on this summer. There was a news conference. The fire had hopped the river. I didn't think anything of it.

Around 1pm, I headed out to go grocery shopping. I did NOT want to go grocery shopping, but it was the first Tuesday of the month and that meant 15% off. So with the desire to save money, I left the house, leaving my husband, Brian, to have a rest as he'd vacuumed the entire house that morning.

I drove up to the Save-On Foods and saw this. These pictures simply do not do it justice. I couldn't get all the smoke and fire in one picture...

My heart stopped. It was ominous and scary. I fought the urge to panic and run away and went inside, confident that if we were in danger, we'd be told. The fire chief had said on the radio on the car ride over that the lower townsite was in danger and everyone else should be thinking about what they might pack. But it didn't occur to me that I would need to worry about anything.

My cart was half full when a store manager came in looking a little panicky. "Have you SEEN outside?" He rushed off. There were murmurs of Beacon Hill on fire. I didn't believe it. Thickwood (where I live) was on alert? I texted Brian. People are a little panicky here, I said. And then shrugged and kept shopping. Almost done, I received this text from Finleigh's aide:
Do you guys want to come grab Fin. I am going to head home. We are on voluntary evacuation.

Brian called. What do we do? I had our only vehicle. Do I leave the food here? Do I check out and then come?

Brian biked over to get Finleigh. I checked out with a very frightened cashier. Brian texted to tell me to get gas if I could. Line ups were crazy, so instead I went to get my son in grade 5 who was at a different school from Finn. I figured he could probably take the bus home, but better to be safe. When I got to the school, there was a line up to sign out our kids and half the class was already gone. My son was in tears. I was behind the eight ball here. I managed to fill with gas on the way home.

We got home after 20 minutes at the gas station. My friend was picking up her boys and my eldest from the Jr. High. We were packing - just in case - and listening to the news. They interrupted songs every couple minutes to update the situation.  The emergency broadcast signal went on. It was not a test.

Brian was taking pictures for insurance. My friend was stuck in traffic trying to get the older kids. I was washing dishes and folding laundry.

There was a barricade to go into Thickwood. My friend would not be able to get in to the neighbourhood to get her stuff or drop of my eldest. She hadn't even made it to the school yet to get them.

The evacuations intensified. Suddenly we were under mandatory evacuation. I grabbed what I could. We packed the car and headed for mom's house - normally 5 minutes away. Today closer to 2 hours.

Here's what I wrote on Facebook. It was 3:58pm. My grade 5'er would not have even been home from school yet had he taken the bus... which I'm quite sure was not running anyways.
Everyone. We are evacuating our house right now due to forest fires. We are OKAY! Don't worry about us. But this is an adventure.
We spent two of the longest hours of our lives trying to get to my parents to get our son and then stay traveling with my parents to wherever we were supposed to go. We were stuck beside my daughter's school. We watched air crafts dumping stuff over the fire. The school looked like this. 

We finally got to the corner where my parents were waiting with my eldest in their car (my friend was heading North to reunite with her husband) as we saw flames not far away. We saw FLAMES. I ran over and got him. Not because I didn't trust my parents, I knew he was fine... but I just needed all my babies with me. Things become crystal clear. when you think your life might be in danger. It was at this point that people lost their patience. People were driving on sidewalks and in the wrong lanes. At one point this one lane street had 5 lanes. People were panicking and we didn't blame them. It was the first time I felt scared. 

It took us hours to get through the city. Finleigh cried through much of it. We had forgotten her iPad and ALL her comfort toys at home. Her backpack was left hanging where we'd packed it. It was not pretty. All lanes were going toward the highway. As we got close, they opened the highway to go South (which was such a relief. Going north would mean no stores and no way to replace the things Finleigh used to keep calm). It had been closed for hours because there were fires everywhere. We were on our way to my brother's house outside of Edmonton, 450 km away.

We drove through the city. There were fires in the forests. We could see neighbourhoods gone. It was surreal. I kept yelling, "Look!" "I can't believe this!" "My home!" "I can't believe it!!!" And a few expletives.

We made our way slowly down the highway. 

At 12:13 am I wrote:
So grateful the province got highway 63 doubled this past year. I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like getting out of town.
Cars were littering the sides of the road. Some had people in them. Some were abandoned because they ran out of gas. We kept saying how lucky we were that we managed to gas up before we left. The closest gas station is 200km south of town. The radio told us they'd run out of gas. As we passed by, there were hundreds of vehicles parked. Ready to spend the night and wait for gas. More gas stations south were also out of gas, according to the radio. 

We managed to find gas at 2:09 am. It was the only place open in town.

Found gas in Athabasca! Thank you Husky for bing open. Oh the relief! We can make it to Edmonton now.
12 hours from when we left the house we made it to my brother's house. We were safe. We were together. We were at a place where we could find an iPad for Finleigh. All was well. 

Never have I ever been so happy to see my brother's house (and I'm always happy to see his house). 12 hours after we left home, we are safe and sound in St. Albert. 
And when we walked in, we saw a bunch of jerry cans full of gasoline all ready for him to come and rescue us in case we couldn't find fuel on the way down. Pretty great brother I have, I'd say.
My experience as an evacuee has been interesting to say the least. I will share more in the coming days. 

To read part 2, go here 


  1. I am so so glad we are all out and together and safe!

  2. Oh my gosh. Those pictures are so scary! Happy you are okay, with an iPad :)

  3. I'm breathing a huge sigh of relief that all of you got out safely. What a great brother too. I can't imagine the shock and upset. Thinking of you and your family.

  4. So happy you all are together and safe. I cannot imagine how terrified you were. Thinking about all of you.

  5. Oh my gosh. How absolutely frightening. We've been evacuated twice for wild fires here in Southern California. But this one is really a monster! I'm so glad you're safe. Stay well and calm (yeah. Easy for me to say, right?) I'm sending you all good wishes, Amanda. Much love.