Saturday, May 28, 2016

Preparations

Slowly, I'm transitioning into the next phase of my little unexpected summer adventure and starting to focus on my return to Fort McMurray early next month.  I have to admit that, thinking about all that this entails, it has been a daunting task at times.

I don't have an exact return date nailed down yet though that will be the easy part.  After that comes a full inspection of my home, photos of any damage, determining what is safe from smoke damage and salvageable and what is not, washing or disposing of clothing, towels, curtains, cleaning my outside windows and siding, washing all my dishes (which with a boil water advisory could be fun), washing the floors and walls, checking out the attic, cleaning up the lovely pot of boiled potatoes that I know has been patiently awaiting my return over the course of the past 25 days...along with the meat in the pot beside it.  To top it all off, I suspect I may have a few bear issues in my neighbourhood as well.

I do expect some smoke and will just have to wait to find out about its extent.  I was silently thanking myself for closing all the windows before I left though I know that will probably not mean a completely smoke-free home.  Aside from the food in the kitchen that was left out, I suspect the refrigerator and freezer will be, in a word, nasty.  I've heard that while there were outages, parts of Thickwood kept power for long portions of time so while I'm hopeful my fridge may be salvageable I'm prepared for the reality that it may not be.  Depending on how much rain we've had, which I don't think has been that much, I also expect my lawn to be a small forest.  I also have some brush left over from when I had my ash trees pruned back in the fall pile up between the backyard shed and the fence which, in light of events, I am anxious to get tidied up as soon as possible.  Throw in trying to get in touch with two more tenants whom I haven't heard from since the evacuation and fitting all this cleaning and tidying around my work schedule when I start back and things start to get interesting really fast.  Daunting tasks ahead, but not impossible.

Fortunately, the city has been preparing and I have a wealth of resources to assist.  A few areas around town have been set up for returnees to access cleaning supplies and water and other resources they may need.  As luck would have it, there will be one set up at the high school a block from my house.  I also know that there are many other people in the same boat as me and that I am one of the lucky ones who at least has a functioning house to return to.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Fort McMurray Fire Photos



A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my ordeal with being caught up in the evacuation from Fort McMurray.  It wasn't until this evening however that I was finally able to get some of the photos I managed to take posted to the blog.  By now, I'm sure you've seen tons of video and stills in the media.  At the risk of simply adding more to the mix, here are a few photos from one person's experience.

This was the sky to the west from my back deck around mid-afternoon.


By the time the mandatory evacuation order was issued, this was the view from my front door.


Another photo taken from my back deck looking east.


Another westerly view.  At this point I was starting to think that joining the mass exodus from town might be a very good thing in terms of self-preservation.


More photos from around my house.  At the time I had no idea where this smoke was coming from but thinking back I'm pretty sure that this was coming mainly from the river valley.  I had no idea how far away the fire was or even what was burning.  Having the television news on in the background broadcasting about the fires gave the me a pretty surreal feeling.






This was the last photo I was able to take of my street after Tony and I had the truck gassed up and we had returned for a couple of things we had forgotten in the rush to get Drifter in her carrier and through a few bags in the back of the truck.  I had no idea if that glow was just from the sun shining through the smoke and cloud as it began to sink toward the horizon or if nearby houses were actually on fire but at this point I honestly thought the neighbourhood was in serious jeopardy.  I later learned that what was likely burning as a forested area behind the street directly behind my street.  It's an area I know well from my bird-watching and indeed I had only gone over there about a week before the evacuation.    I know it will look very different to me once I return.


What I honestly thought would be the last photo of my house.  Looking at it now, I do have to admit its one of the better ones I have taken.  The background colours are pretty interesting.  Too bad my house had to be under threat of burning down in order for me to get such a background.


Expecting to be heading northward, I was surprised to reach Highway 63 and find us re-directed southbound.


A couple photos heading past Abasand hill.  It didn't look nearly as dramatic when we passed it as some of the photos I was to see later in the news but the smoke was very thick and disorienting.




Approaching the Hospital Street overpass that connects the downtown to the Abasand area.



Heading up Beacon Hill.  Once we got out of the valley, the sky did start to clear noticeably.  The smoke in the distance is likely from the Beacon Hill neighbourhood and a nearby trailer park.


If you heard of a hotel burning down during the fire, well this was it.  Not too much remained of the Super 8 by the time we passed by, driving southbound in the northbound lanes at this point.  The building looked like it had been struck by a very powerful bomb.


While the traffic looks a bit like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse, for the most part people drove sensibly and I didn't really feel it was overly chaotic.  Frankly, up until the Thickwood and Timberlea overpasses were built to greatly improve traffic flow, I felt very much as if I was driving to work on a morning 3 or 4 years ago....other than all the smoke and the city burning down behind us, that is.




At this point there was a lull in my photo-taking since I obviously had more pressing things I on my mind.  I did manage to take a couple of photos late the following day (May 4) shortly before we were again evacuated out of the tiny community of Anzac.



After leaving Anzac, Tony and I got as far as Conklin along Highway 881 before spending the night in the truck while waiting for the gas station to open.  We set out that morning (May 5) and arrived at the Bold Centre in Lac La Biche.  As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the outpouring of support and the volunteer spirit I witnessed were simply overwhelming.


The Bold Centre is an amazing facility to see in such a small community and it was clear that the people there took great pride in it.


A scene I was to witness countless times as people showed up continuously throughout the 3 days I was there with all sorts of supplies for evacuees.


I had been hoping to get a photo of some chalk greetings just outside the Bold Centre.  I had hoped to move the pylon for a clearer shot until I saw this little guy jump in.  It wasn't until a couple days later when I was looking back at my photos on my camera that I realized he had a piece of chalk in his hand and was re-tracing the letters on the ground.




....and Fort McMurray loves you right back Lac La Biche.

It took a couple of days for Drifter to relax a bit.  I could tell by her flattened ears here that she was still getting used to her surroundings but she was definitely a trooper through the entire ordeal.  By the end of the second day she was showing a lot of her regular behaviours and seemed much more relaxed.


After leaving Lac La Biche, I wound up at my grandmother's in Spruce Grove.  I had hoped to be back to work by now but mother nature has had other ideas in the meantime.  Earlier in the day I left for Grande Prairie where I find myself keeping a eye on events and very much looking forward to returning home in the near future.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Re-entry Plan

When I saw a seagull flying by yesterday with a giant stick lodged in its tail feathers I had a feeling it could be a rather surreal day. And indeed that is how it turned out as we learned about the re-entry plan for Fort McMurray. After the fire's recent spread and a few set backs I wasn't expecting to hear any good news any time soon. Needless to say, news of this plan gave me a welcome boost. This news was sweetened even further upon learning through a website put out by the municipality that my home sustained no serious structural damage. The smoke will be another issue I'm sure but I'll deal with that when the time comes.

The phased re-enrty plan means that I will be allowed to return home as early as June 3rd. Likely it won't be until a few days later but I do intend to return as soon as I'm able. I'm hoping I might get a bit lucky with my refrigerator as my area of town kept power for long than a few others. I do intend to bring a cooler with me just in case and we will be under a "boil water" advisory until at least the end of June. I'm glad I had the time and foresight to leave some potable water in sealed containers and one sink before I had to leave. I don't have any problems with roughing it for a little bit if I have to.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Holding Pattern

While I mentioned in my last post about looking forward to be able to return to my regular life in Fort McMurray, it looks like I, along with 88,000 other people, will have to wait a little bit longer as the situation has markedly deteriorated over the past 24 hours. The camp I had hoped to be working out of by week's end is now under threat from "The Beast". A nearby camp, Blacksands Lodge, fell victim to the fire this morning. The fire has closed more sections of Highway 63, the flames are encroaching on more oil sands facilities and a saw mill I pass by on my way to and from work is under threat.

And so I watch and wait to see what will come. Other than knowing a few people in the area and being familiar with the lay of the land up there, I really don't have access to any more information at this point. I did have a moment of alarm this morning when I learned of a couple of explosions due to gas lines in a residential area on the west side of town,in Dickinsfield and Thickwood. Both areas are about 2km from my street though I do pass by the one area in Thickwood on a more or less daily basis. It was a relief to know that my chateau is still hanging in there and my heart goes out to those who now have no home to return to.

I don't really have too much else to say at this point. I've been doing my best to keep to somewhat of a regular routine and blogging plays a role in that. A couple months ago I had planned out a short trip to Banff so I am hopeful that I will still be able to salvage that. Going bird watching without my guide and binoculars will feel a bit strange as I almost always have them with me. Surely, it might pose a bit of a challenge but then it isn't like I haven't had a few unexpected challenges to deal with over the course of the last two weeks.



Monday, May 9, 2016

Fort McMurray the Phoenix

By now I'm sure many people have seen seen the devastating videos and photos taken of the damage done to Fort McMurray. I have my own photos to share which I will be able to in time. It's surreal to me in many ways to see our community so battered and bruised. I suspect the reality won't fully sink in for me until I return to see it with my own eyes. An area of forest I visited back in February for some birdwatching is now charred and black. Another entire area of town I've traipsed through to do some hiking now exists pretty much only in my memory.

While we have been beaten down somewhat, I have no doubts that, like the proverbial phoenix, we will rise from the ashes. As I look forward to the weeks ahead, there is certainly much work to be done. Hot spots will need to be dealt with and roads cleared. Utilities will need to be restored. Businesses will need to get up and running again. And they will. Of that, I have no doubt. Odds are I will be back to work before I am back in to my chateau. I suspect that in the next couple of weeks I will be temporarily put in camp so that I am closer to my work and have a place to stay.

I'd be remiss if I neglected to thank more of the wonderful people who have helped me during this odyssey...

Big thanks to Tony first of all for the long drive to Lac La Biche and out of the danger zone.

Another thank you goes out to my work buddy Adam for taking me in his truck to Spruce Grove.

Many thanks and much love to my grandma Ferne for welcoming me in to her home at a late hour, filling me with good food, taking me shopping for some much-needed clothing and taking good care of me. Thanks too for her little dog Gracie for not raising a ruckus with Drifter, though I'm pretty sure she's figured out who the boss is between the two of them.

Thank you as well to my uncle Lee and aunt Kerri as well as my cousins Brayden and Beau for a great meal last night.

A special thanks to the wonderful lady, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten, in Lac La Biche who saw me sitting alone during a meal at the Bold Centre and took the time to sit and chat with me.

Thanks as well to Chad, a coordinator from work, who set my mind at ease about timelines for going back to work.

I can't wait to get back and start putting our community back together again, though I know it will still be some time before conditions are safe enough to allow it. The list of things I will need to do to get the chateau ship shape is long but manageable. In the meantime, I remain incredibly optimistic when I think of all the challenges my community has overcome....weathering lowering oil prices, facing the the wrath of the uneducated about what our community is all about. We will return. We will support each other. We will rebuild. If there's one word I've heard that has been used to describe Fort McMurray that has stood out in my mind it is "resilient".

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Safe From Fort McMurray Wildfire

The past 3 days have been incredibly challenging and difficult in many ways.  I'm writing this post tonight from Lac La Biche after being forced to flee Fort McMurray Tuesday evening due to the current forest fire situation.  There is much to say and will no doubt be commenting more in the coming weeks.  I am also writing this very post very much off the cuff, so to speak.  For now though, know that I am well and safe.

I left work early Tuesday afternoon after learning that the fire situation had rapidly deteriorated that morning.  In a nut shell I left the main gate of Suncor in a cab with 4 other fellows and returned to town to find thick smoke blanketing the community I call home.  I was stunned.  Fortunately it only took about an hour to get back to my house as we had a cab driver who knew the city very well and was able to avoid much of the congestion.  Fearing I might not be able to get to my street as we were already catching wind of evacuation notices, I jumped out of the cab a couple of blocks away and was able to get back using a few short cuts and parking lots.

The grey heavy smoke I saw the day before had returned and there was heavy black smoke coming from the direction of the golf course in the Wood Buffalo area to the west.  My tenant, Tony, had just woken up to prepare for night shift and was greatly surprised by my sudden appearance.  Following the news on tv was surreal to say the least.  We were watching a major community under siege from forest fires....and that place was HERE.  The wind made it difficult to give us a sense of how close the flames might be and at times it appeared as if things were calming down.  By 6pm, however, it became clear that the situation was rapidly deteriorating.   All the local  radio stations ceased broadcasting and  we  made the decision to leave.  I had 2 small bags packed and quickly called my parents to let them know what was going on.  Between Tony and I, were we able to get my cat into a small carrier and headed off in Tony's truck.  I had a tenant who was currently out of province and another tenant who works in the same trade as I do.  I hadn't been able to make contact with him yet but were certain that he had been evacuated to a work lodge north of town where we were also intending to go.  After a fuel stop, we reached highway 63 in rather good time only to find RCMP directing us southbound.  At that point we had no idea where we were even going.

Driving over the Athabasca and through the downtown was an apocalypse.  I'm sure most people have by now seen the many images and video through various media.  That was pretty much what we faced.  At various points we were directed to travel south in the northbound lands and by the time we reached the outskirts of town the northbound lanes were filled up with southbound traffic for as far as I could see.  Abasand  was an inferno.  Beacon Hill looked like it had been bombed.  There were cars and truck  and in the ditch and stuck in the median.  A trailer park was a smoking ruin.  A hotel was completely engulfed in flame.  The scope of the destruction we saw along the highway made it difficult for my brain to register anything familiar.  I couldn't even recognize that place.

Once out of town we heard on the radio that the hamlet Anzac was our best option so that's where we headed.  After a 3-and-a-half hour drive that normally takes 30-40 minutes, we arrived at the Anzac rec centre and checked in.   I expected to be there 3 or 4 days at the most.  While we had cots set up, we spent the first night in Tony's truck.  I was finally able to find an area in between the arena boards and the outside wall of the building that was safe enough to let the cat out for a much-needed stretch.  Drifter was a trooper. 

The following day (Wednesday) it became clear that the situation was deteriorating again.   A wall of dark cloud stretched across the horizon east to west as far as I could see.  Things were changing so quickly that even authorities had difficulty keeping up and keeping people informed.  All they could tell us by 10pm was to head south.  To where, we had no idea.

We caught rumours to head to the Nexen site perhaps 30 minutes down the highway and we booked it of Anzac about a 3/4 tank of gas only to discover that Nexen was sending its people out.  We were on the move again.  In the event, it was a good thing as I heard that by morning the fire ling was very close to Nexen. 

After a couple more hours we reached Conklin to find the gas station closed.  While I was confident we could get as far as Lac La Biche on our remaining fuel we decided that if we were wrong or hit heavy traffic we would be in some very serious trouble if we ran out of fuel.  We heard reports of mobile gas station being set up but in the moment we decided to stay put in Conklin for the night.  After spending the second of 3 nights in the truck.. RCMP arrived early the following morning and suggested we head to Lac La Biche.  We were able to top up our tank and get a coffee.  I had slept 2 to 3 hours in addition to the 2 hours the previous evening to this point.

Around 8am this morning we arrived in Lac La Biche and got settled in to the rec centre.  And that is where I find myself currently.  After a hot shower and a much-needed meal I was able to breath easier and collect my thoughts.  I`ve been able to get access to many resources regarding my work and house situation and as I worked my way through the list I found my stress level beginning to lessen.  I was heartened to see a few guys I know from work and collect information from them.  Thanks brothers!

I do have to say I am completely overwhelmed at the support Lac La Biche has given.  As I type this I am sitting in one of the field houses that is well-stocked with everything a person would need.  I had a few clothes with me, perhaps 3-4 days worth but no jacket so I was able to grab a nice hoodie along with all the toiletries I needed. 

I`m grateful to so many people I can`t possible name them all.  Thank you to the volunteers upstairs who are taking care of my cat.  She has a much bigger kennel, food, a proper litter box.  She`s obviously stressed but a little better than this morning. 

Thank you to the people of Anzac who opened their community to us and who have now been forced to evacuate in turn.

Thank you so much to the fine RCMP and EMS personnel of Fort McMurray.  Even as your own families and homes were affected you continued to perform your duties to the best of you abilities. 

Thank  you to all the people of Lac La Biche who donated sooo much.  I wish I knew who donated the hoodie I`m wearing so I could buy that person a beer. 

Thank you to all those who helped me deal with all the insurance and work related issues.   It`s never fun stuff to deal but at least I feel a bit more in control of my circumstances at the moment.  Things will take time to get done but they will get done. 

Thank you to the anonymous stranger who drove up to me to ask if I needed a ride anywhere. 

Thank you to the lady who directed me to the internet services so I could update family and friends and reassure them....and even write this post. 

Thank you to the man who dressed up as Santa.  You put a smile on my face and I know you brought comfort to that little boy you were walking with down the main concourse earlier this evening.  His smile made me smile.

I would also like to thank all the guys from work I`ve bumped in to for the information and encouragement they`ve passed along.  Seeing familiar faces in a sea of unfamiliarity enlightens the spirit.

While I`ve already said many thank you`s already, I`d like to acknowledge and thank Tony for his help in getting me through the last 72 hours.  I honestly don`t know where I would be right now otherwise.

This is only the tip of proverbial iceberg and I`m sure there will many more thank you`s to say in the coming days and weeks.

At this point it seems I will likely be heading to Edmonton in the next 2 days  to stay at my grandmother`s after I`ve finished taking care of as much as I am able to.  Yes, life is a bit up in the air at the moment but I know I`m better off than many others tonight.  I don`t have all the answers and still have a few things to work on but it will all get done in time. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Smoke in Thickwood

While there wasn't much visible smoke in my neighbourhood this morning, there certainly was by the time I got home from work this evening.  We are experiencing a bit of heat wave here with the mercury in the upper 20's but fortunately, there wasn't much wind.  I've seen some pretty dramatic photos of the fire online but it does appear that things are improving from what I've seen.

Wolverine Drive near Westview School


Wolverine Drive looking east.


Wolverine Drive looking west.


A couple south-westerly views from the school playground.



Looking west from in front of my house.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Dramatic Start to the Fire Season

If you've followed the news today, you've likely heard about the forest fires threatening Fort McMurray.  In order to assure friends and family I thought I'd do up a post here to their minds at ease.  First off, I can say that I am perfectly safe.  The fire that occurred in town was actually the closer of the two fires to my house (perhaps 4 to 5 kilometres away) but that fire is now under control.  While it did lead to a closure of Highway 63 leading north out of town, between Thickwood and Timberlea,the highway has since been reopened.  I actually passed right by the area on my way home from workand while there was still some smoke and the forest looked a bit black, there were helicopters and crews visible working on hot spots.  

Unfortunately a much more serious fire is still active on the south side of town.  (This would be on the other side of the Athabasca from where I am).  I had caught wind of possible evacuations for  the Gregoire and Beacon Hill areas and this appears to be the case.  So while I'm relieved and thankful that my home is under no threat and I am mindful of those here who can't make that claim here tonight.

I'm back to work tomorrow so odds are my readers might hear of future news before I do  as I don't have a cell phone (ya, I know, I'm different).  But if anything changes I'll be sure to update when I get the opportunity to do so.  

In the meantime, here's how today's events looked from my neck of the woods.  Both photos were taken shortly after 9pm this evening from the parking lot of Westview School in Thickwood.



Saturday, April 30, 2016

Set No Limits

Back in the fall of 2001 I left a teaching position in the Northwest Territories to begin teaching grade 6 in a small fly-in community in northern Manitoba.  Northern Canada was still very much an alien place to me back then and I'm sure I appeared very much to be an alien to the young charges for whom I found myself responsible.  

To say it was a difficult year would be an understatement.  I developed a rather serious skin rash due in part to the community being under a "boil water advisory" for the entire school year.  A close relative of one of my students was murdered.  A young pre-school girl was tragically run over by her school bus and killed.   I recall one day after sitting at my desk in empty class in tears as I questioned my roll and purpose after a day where it appeared blatantly obvious that despite my best intentions, I was failing to get through to my students.  Suffice it to say, it was a year of many challenges.

If there was one bright spot that year, it was that I was privileged to have a young girl in my class named Nicole.    While she was the smallest girl in the class, she had the biggest personality, always smiling, a great communicator and very determined to succeed, easily one of those students you feel fortunate, indeed honoured, to have had the opportunity to work with.   I knew back then that this girl had "university-bound" written all over her.   

It is often said that in education you're dealing with long-term investments in people and so you don't see the result until much later.  I left the community not knowing what the future would hold for her but trusting that her determination and hard work would pay off in the end, even if the result would never be known to me.  Except....it was.

With the growth of social media, I was able to get back in touch with Nicole a few years later and was quite thrilled to learn that she had been accepted in to an undergraduate program at the University of Brandon.  Her strong work ethic was paying dividends.  I'm sure transitioning from a remote community to a university town was no easy task.  Certainly I can relate to that as leaving my small Ontario town for a major city to attend school posed challenges for me as well.  

Challenges, but also opportunities.  As it was clear that Nicole had every intention on making good on the opportunities she had.  As it turned out, her undergraduate degree was just a warm up for the Bachelor of Education program she later enrolled in.  Nicole was setting her sights on becoming a teacher herself and to say I was really damned proud of her would be a colossal understatement.

Fast forward to Spring 2016 and she is no longer the young girl with the long brown hair I remember her as, though I'm sure the big smile I remember remains.  As I write this, Nicole stands on the cusp of graduating with a Bachelor of Education degree.  


Words fail me at times, and this is one of them. so, using the excuse of a being a gushing former teacher of hers, I will proudly defer to her own words as I feel she expresses herself very well...

Graduation will be May 27, 2016.  It took quite awhile to get to where I am today.  Believing in yourself and determination and get you through anything!  I am glad I got to do my last placement in my hometown and possible employment with Frontier School Division as a teacher in the near future....you have the potential to become whatever you want - set no limits and just do it!

Nicole, I wish you all the very best :)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Conspiracy Afoot

If I wasn't such a logical thinker (or at least I like to fancy myself as one) I might be forgiven for thinking there was a conspiracy afoot.  The washer, my bookshelf (or lack thereof, to be more accurate) and even the provincial government seemed to be in cahoots regarding my overtime.  (Honestly, I'm NOT a government conspiracy nut... a self-professed political geek, yes but a surly anti-government Albertan, no).

Ah overtime,  it's rather like hen's teeth these days given the current economic volatility.  But it does exist, even if it doesn't make its presence known as much as it once did.  I haven't worked overtime in so long I can actually still remember the last time I did.  Almost to the exact day, back in late October of 2014.  Ouch.

But given the sum of everything, I really have no right to complain.  I know I'm not hurting as much as a lot of other people here and for that I am very grateful.  But overtime appeared (knock on wood) on the ephemeral overtime horizon this coming weekend and I put in for as many days as my employer sees fit to give me.  Five days would be amazing.  Two days is likely realistic.....and two is at least better than zero.

It was the perfect weekend for it too.  Despite today's rain, the forecast for the upcoming weekend was looking downright ambrosial and I wouldn't have to make any big payments out of my next cheque which was downright sublime.  Of course, that's how it all appeared to me yesterday when I put in my overtime request.

Tonight I got home to learn that my washing machine had finally died on me.  Guess what I'll be spending my overtime pay on now?  It's all good though.  The contraption had lasted me for as long as I've owned the house, which was a great deal longer than it's dryer companion did.   And it gives me a good excuse to buy a nice front-end loader.  (When I was 20, owning a concert grand piano and a custom stereo system were, in my mind, symptomatic of having "arrived".  At 40+ that has now evidently changed to owning a front-end loading washing machine.  But they DO have lots of fancy lights and buttons and that can be cool, right?)

I was a bit tired and water-logged from work so I didn't have much energy to fret over it for any length of time.  But at least now that I need a new washer figured I might as well get a new dryer, a new microwave to replace the one over the stove that gave up the ghost a couple months ago and, hey why not?, a decent set of bookshelves for all the books I've accumulated over the past 6 years.

It's been awhile since I've bought any big ticket items for the chateau so I figure it's better to get it done all in one shot if I can do so rather than die a death from a thousand cuts.  (The province also releases their budget tomorrow which I will be following closely, even if I don't blog about it, so apparently they were also in on this one with the appliances.  I suspect I won't be happy with tomorrow's budget which is why I'll just mention it now as an aside and we'll just leave it at that.)

But as my parents would tell me, sometimes you have to spend money to make money and given that I've also read that the rental vacancy rates here are something along the lines of 32%(!)  I'll gladly take a few lumps to keep my tenants happy (and in clean clothes).