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.