Trent Ernst, Editor
Sunday, May 1. In the forests southwest of Fort McMurray, smoke starts to rise from MWF-009, the ninth wildfire of the year in the Fort Mac area. It’s a little early in the year for wildfires, but a dry spring and high winds cause the blaze to spring up faster than anyone is expecting.
The first is spotted by a Forestry crew and logged at about 4 pm, and is already at 500 hectares. Big for so soon after starting, but not excessively so. But by that evening, people in the Gregoire neighbourhood are already being put on evacuation notice.
A day later, 80 firefighters were on the fire, which had doubled in size by 5 pm. Three hours later, it had doubled again, to nearly 2500 hectares. The wind is pushing the fire away from the city, and, while the fire is still growing, crews are cautiously optimistic.
The next day, hell came to town. Shifting winds blew black smoke towards the city, a precursor of the flames racing their way towards the city.
It was like the apocalypse
Brittney Traverse watched hell as it came towards her and her house. Traverse, who lived in Tumbler a few years back with her mom Melinda, says she knew there was a fire burning out of town, but didn’t realize how serious it was until she got a phone call from her mom.
“We get fires around Fort McMurray all the time,” she says, “So we didn’t really pay attention. But mom called at 1 pm on Sunday, saying she could see my house in the photos of the fire.”
She went out to check, and saw a Peace Officer at the gas station, barricading it off. He told Traverse there was a mandatory evacuation of the Gregoire area, which was right across the road from where Traverse lived, in Beacon Hill.
She spent a restless Monday night, tossing, turning and pacing around the house. “I just couldn’t get comfortable,” she says.
The fire, too, was restless, growing to 26 square kilometres.
Tuesday morning, Traverse went to work at nine in the morning at the Brick, where she works as a sales associate. At 11 that day, the city made the announcement. While the first were moving away from the city, the winds were expected to change that afternoon. Traverse stayed at work for 90 minutes, before heading home. That was at 12:30. By 1 pm, the sky had gone from blue to completely black. “I could see the flames in the trees. I waited to hear the official evacuation alert, but finally decided to leave.”
That was at 2 pm. As she and her boyfriend were leaving, the RCMP were just coming into Beacon Hill to tell people to evacuate. This, says Traverse, was the first mention the community had of the evacuation, despite being closer to the fire than nearby Gregoire. “They never said anything about Beacon Hill until it was right on top of us,” she says.
Just a few hours later, her house was one of the first to be consumed by the fire. “It was like the apocalypse, the way everyone was scrambling to get out, to get gas, to get resources.”
Gathering the troops
While Traverse and her boyfriend were packed and ready to go, Traverse’ first concern was her son, living downtown with her ex and his girlfriend. A moment of panic, when she realized that her son had gone to school that morning.
Back in Beacon Hill. Where the fire was now licking the edges of the community
Fortunately, his aunt had gone to pick him up, and was able to transfer the four-year-old safely to mom.
Her next concern? Gas. Her vehicle was nearly empty, so she went looking for a gas station still open through the thick black haze of wood smoke. She could see trees burning when she looked south.
She finally found an open gas station, with vehicles lined up, so she stopped to put $20 in the tank, enough to get them out of the community, and went back to pick up her ex’s girlfriend. “She loaded up the pets and all her personal stuff,” says Traverse. “The smoke was so thick, you could barely breathe. Finally I said ‘we have to go.’”
But while her ex’s girlfriend was there, her ex was not, still stuck on his jobsite. They spoke on the phone, and he told her to get out of there, and he would catch up.
But go where? The RCMP was sending people north, away from the fire, but Traverse knew there was no escape that way. 54 km to Fort Mckay, then another 15 km to the road’s end in the middle of nowhere. Beyond that a road that was used as a winter road to Fort Chipewyan, but impassable in the summer. A dead end.
She decided to wait in town for as long as she could to see if she could get out to the south via Highway 63. “I wasn’t going to go north to get stuck there with 60,000 people,” she said. And so she waited.
Finally, she saw an RCMP officer approaching the vehicle behind her. “I rolled down my window and heard the officer say they had opened up the Highway south and that not a lot of people knew yet.”
It was the opening she was looking for, and they began making their way towards Anzac, a small community about 45 km south of Fort Mac. It took 90 minutes to get there due to the traffic.
All along the road, people were pulled over to the side. Some out of gas. Some, stopped what they thought was a safe distance away to watch the blaze.
Traverse was able to get additional $50 of gas in Anzac, then drove a short way out of town to await her ex. He finally showed up, but had been unable to re-fuel. So Traverse followed him as they made their way towards Wandering River. Sure enough, he ran out of gas before they were able to make it to the town.
Fortunately, they were close to a worksite, and the people at the site were able to offer him gas and they were soon on their way again.
The tiny convoy made it to Wandering River, taking six hours to cover the 200 km.
At Athabasca, they turned west instead of south towards Edmonton, where many of the refugees fleeing the fire were heading, instead, making their way towards Tumbler Ridge, where Traverse had spent the better part of a year living and where her mom still lives.
With open arms
There are currently five people in Traverse’s group, though she expects her ex will be leaving soon, taking their son with him.
Traverse and her boyfriend are staying at a condo that was donated by “a gentleman in the community,” she says. The two will be able to stay there for the next two months free. “We’re just trying to survive now,” she says. “I Don’t know what we’re going to do. They anticipate no one will be able to get back for forty to sixty days. The fire has moved away from city now, but Suncor was just evacuated. If it hits there, Fort McMurray is done.”
Traverse has been welcomed back into the community with open arms. “Everybody has been really great. My cousin is bringing us some couches from Fort St. John. Red Cross will be getting us some monetary compensation. And the generosity of the people here, of my friends has been overwhelming. I’d love to be able to thank everyone, but there have been so many people.”
Mom Melinda agrees. “A big heartfelt thanks to all the amazing people of our community for the love and support they have shown my kids.”
Traverse left Fort Mac with three outfits, while her boyfriend had one and her son had nothing but the clothes on his back. “People here have donated toys, clothes, this place to stay.”
And it’s not just Tumbler Ridge. Stores across Alberta have been offering discounts, people all over have been opening up spaces. “My job has been great, too. HR has contacted me, make sure we were okay. They are paying us up until tomorrow, then we’ll see. Westjet flew everyone out for free. Of course, Air Canada raised prices to $4000. You can see who cares and who is just trying to take advantage of the situation.”
Just trying to survive now
Through it all, Traverse says, it was her four-year-old son that held the whole thing together. “The little guy wasn’t scared at all. We told him what was happening, but he wasn’t scared.”
Traverse says it was her maternal instincts, a desire to protect her son that drove her to find a way south out of Fort McMurray, but he also acted as a calming influence, keeping the group from panicking. “The only thing that was driving me was getting family out of the city. I drove two days straight, just stopping to rest for a few hours here, a few hours there. I didn’t have time to be scared then, but now it’s all I can think about.”
Now that she’s in Tumbler Ridge, though, she’s not sure what she’s going to do. Her employer has been paying since the evacuation, but she’s not sure what will be happening as of tomorrow. “They may keep paying us,” she says, “or they may lay us all off, I don’t know.”
It’s been a week, and the implications of the fire are still sinking in for Traverse. “They tell you not to get caught up in the material things, but you look at everything you work so hard for, and it’s now a pile of ash. I can’t stop seeing the flames, the smoke the devastation. My job, as far as I know is still standing, but I can’t get back there for at least the next two months, and what do I have there? The couches, TV, that can all be replaced, but my son had a heartbeat bear from his ultrasound, and it’s gone. My family photos are gone. I managed to save my laptop, with all my recent photos, and I packed a bag with the important documents and stuff beforehand, so we don’t have to replace all that.”
“My ex and his girlfriend had three places, and they’re still standing. When people are able to go back, they’ll be able to go with my little boy, and I’m stuck here. I feel like I’ve lost everything and everyone else is okay. I worked two jobs for two years to be able to get the place, scarified a lot of time with my little boy to get settled, and it seems like it was all for nothing. And now it feels like I’m losing him, too. My house is gone, I don’t have anything to go back to. It’s so surreal. You think you’re okay, until you get out and you realize, no, I’m not okay.”