May 2016

Tales from the North: Exodus

I wake up this morning and I realize that I am looking at a completely different world.  The room that I wake up in is not mine.  The items carefully placed in it are not of my choosing.  I continue rubbing my red and stinging eyes as the world around me finally comes into focus.  This is not my bedroom and this is not my home – but I am safe.

May 2nd, 10:30 pm – We are leaving an event in town; the sky is raining ash from the nearby forest fire.  It’s terrifying but I put it out of my mind.

The roof of our car – covered in ash from the nearby fires

May 3rd, 6:30 am – My coworker picks me up and we head to site from town.  There is no visible sign of the fire or any smoke in the air.  Reports say the fire is still burning but we are to continue with our day to day.  We go to work as we would any other day.

May 3rd, 1:15 pm – I receive a phone call from a coworker at one my company’s town branches.  She tells me there is a mandatory evacuation order for some areas of the city and asks where the staff at my branch are located.  She tells me the fire is headed towards other residential neighbourhoods and we should consider leaving as soon as possible.  We leave site in our work truck and head to town.  Gas stations along the way are backed up and the cloud hovering above the city is getting bigger and darker by the minute.  It looks like a mushroom cloud and I begin getting nervous.  I need to get home to my family.

A cloud of smoke hovers above the city as we approach heading North

May 3rd, 2:15 pm – Our drive into town is like a nightmare.  There is fire along the sides of the road and smoke everywhere.  It is hard to see anything in front of us.  The trailer park and a gas station are in flames.  We finally make it down into the valley towards downtown.  There are emergency vehicles racing in every direction; sirens we can hear but are unable to pinpoint.  People are running everywhere trying to find shelter from the smoke.  It’s like watching something out of a movie – this can’t be reality.  I am shaking. We make it across the bridge to the north end of town.  The air begins to clear.

The sides of the road as we head towards downtown

May 3rd, 2:30 pm – My coworker is unable to go home.  The neighbourhood of Thickwood, where he lives, is starting to be issued mandatory evacuation notices.  He takes me towards my subdivision and I jump out at the earliest opportunity.  We tell each other to stay safe and he drives away.  I run the whole way home from an intersection nearly 2 km away.

May 3rd, 3:30 pm – After a hurried reunion with my wife and dog, we begin loading the car.  The smoke is getting thicker now.  We decide it’s time to go.  After a panicked 30 minutes, we lock the doors to our house not knowing if we will be able to return.  The radio stations have been moved to a local RCMP station nearby and are giving us the best information they can.  We hit traffic almost immediately.

May 3rd, 7:00 pm – We finally make it down the hill out of our neighbourhood.  So many cars are pulled over to the side of the road.  They’ve run out of gas.  The radio stations have stopped broadcasting.  The last update we heard, the whole city is under mandatory evacuation notice.  We are no longer able to evacuate north and the emergency crews are telling us to go south.  South.  Back through the fire.  I panic – almost in tears.  I don’t want to go back through there.  We have no choice.

The remains of the Super 8 Hotel in Gregoire

May 3rd,  7:30 pm – We are almost out of the valley and finally head out of the city.  What I’ve seen the second time through is more insane than I remember; thick smoke, fences on fire, the smoldering shells of vehicles long since abandoned.  I sit in silence as my wife continues to drive and we make it out of the city.  Clean air.  I finally start to breathe again.  I make the mistake of looking back and see the dark cloud.

The shell of a vehicle at Centennial Trailer Park

May 3rd, 8:45 pm – We pull over and stretch our legs just 30 km outside the city.  I take over driving for a bit; a task I take gladly as to give me something else to focus on.  We start receiving updates from our friends and family.  They are safe.  We continue moving south.  Our “dinner” ends up being 2 sticks of beef jerky I had in my work bag.

May 3rd, 10:45 pm – We hit Wandering River, a small community an hour or two south of Fort McMurray.  The traffic is bumper to bumper with people trying to get to the gas station. We keep driving, hoping that Grassland is in a better state.  It’s not.

May 4th, 12:30 am – We stop in Grassland anyway because we need something to eat.  I realize I haven’t had anything real to eat in almost 12 hours.   Gas station hot dogs and some grapefruit juice have never been a better combination until this moment in time.  We carry on to the final stretch towards Edmonton.

May 4th, 3:30 am – We have finally arrive in Edmonton and have found shelter, beds and food with some friends and their family.  I am grateful to them beyond measure.  The three of us collapse and fall asleep almost instantly.

May 4th, 9:30 am – I wake up this morning and I realize that I am looking at a completely different world.  The room that I wake up in is not mine.  The items carefully placed in it are not of my choosing.  I continue rubbing my red and stinging eyes as the world around me finally comes into focus.  This is not my bedroom and this is not my home – but I am safe.  We go on a walk and I watch as my dog plays gleefully, unaware of what has occurred in the last 24 hours.  A police vehicle passes by with its siren blaring and I become tense.  The sky is raining pollen and cotton-like seeds from the nearby trees. It’s beautiful, but it reminds me of the night before, when ash fell from the sky.

The innocence of a dog in the wake of these events – Phoebe

This is my account of the evacuation that took place and my personal experience through the whole thing.  I have lived through hell and, in many ways, I am still living it.  It has been two days since the evacuation and we still don’t know what is going on. There is a lot of misinformation being posted about the current status of the fire on the news and social media accounts.  I can’t help but monitor them even though they make me incredibly mad.  Despite this, I am with my family.  We have a bed, shelter, food and are in good company.  Our hosts have been unbelievably accommodating and I will never be able to repay their generosity.

I have never been prouder to call myself a member of the Fort McMurray community.  To all my friends and family from Fort McMurray – thank you for your efforts and support over the last few days.  When things get tough, we are always there to support one another.  Remember, we are all in this together.  What matters now, is that we are all safe.

Buildings are just buildings.  We are the city.



3 thoughts on “Tales from the North: Exodus”

  1. Well done speed. You captured it vividly. On my way to the airport now, we’ll be having that beer together for breakfast


  2. Very well said! Know we love you all and are here for you if you need anything in the coming days and months! Distance Notwithstanding.


  3. Thank goodness you are all safe now. Sending you and Diana a huge hug from Paul and I. You story is haunting with description. ❤


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