Country 93.3 - A Voice in the Flaming Dark
Just like 80,000 other people in Fort McMurray, our world was flipped upside down on May 3. This is our story, starting from Sunday when the fire first started to when we finally returned on-air in Fort McMurray on May 30.
Some of our staff fled the flames South on Highway 63, driving through fire on both sides of the highway; others went North, like many of you, to camp.
Three of our employees lost their homes; one in Abasand, another in Beacon Hill and a third in Wood Buffalo.
Much of the work we did over the month of May was done while fighting back tears, especially in the early days. It was an awful feeling knowing we were telling people their homes were destroyed.
The worst day was Wednesday, May 4, when we lost Emily and Aaron.
Emily was only 15-years-old and an avid reader; she hated when people dog-eared their books. She was a superfan of the Harry Potter Series.
Aaron would have turned 20 in August. Witty, extremely intelligent and he loved comics like Calvin and Hobbes, and Archie. He also played the drums and guitar.
We’ve cried a lot, we’ve hugged a lot and we’ve even managed a few laughs.
The following is a timeline of how we covered ‘The Beast’, starting Sunday when the fire was first spotted. Our story is told from the point of view of our on-air staff, specifically Pete Potipcoe and Bradley Karp.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
6:00 p.m. – The first call to head into the station came Sunday night after another hot spring day, the station started getting calls about two wildfires. One to the north near Taiga Nova and the other about two miles to the southwest of Gregoire and Beacon Hill. At that point the primary focus for firefighters was the north fire, as it was closest to residential areas.
First it was just Pete, Brad and Program Director John Knox. Jenna Hamilton, the swing announcer, came in shortly thereafter, followed by ROCK 97.9 afternoon host Chris Byrne.
Pete was on the air for Country 93.3 updating listeners, while Chris Byrne did the same on ROCK. Brad and Jenna were in the newsroom bouncing between the two stations, providing updates as they came in, gathering info and writing articles for the MyMcMurray website.
8:38 p.m. – We all had a feeling it would be a long night, but RMWB said there were no evacuation orders at the moment.
9:20 p.m. – Residents of Gregoire with respiratory issues were encouraged to leave.
9:45 p.m. – John sends an email to all staff, “IF YOU CAN COME TO STATION – ALL HANDS ON DECK.”
10:35 p.m. – The RMWB declared that Gregoire was under a localized state of emergency as of 9:57 p.m., which was the first mandatory evacuation order for Centennial Trailer Park and Prairie Creek. Gregoire was erroneously included in the press release, but that’s a story for another day. Many of those residents wound up in hotels or at the evacuation reception centre at MacDonald Island Park, which just hours earlier was set up for the spring trade show.
11:00 p.m. – Jenna went home to rest, she would come in the next day to fill in for Sarah Anderson who would cover Brad the following morning. Throughout the night Brad, Chris, and Pete received calls from listeners and fielded their questions. Dozens of people told us they were listening from their room, or porch or the bed of their truck while watching flames from afar. Hundreds of people did not go to sleep that night.
Monday, May 2, 2016
3:15 a.m. – Pete and Chris went home to rest after nine hours of unexpected work. Brad stayed behind and continued cutting in on both stations to provide updates, while preparing for the morning show and gathering more news. From 3 to 6 a.m. it was fairly quiet as there wasn’t a whole lot of new information coming out.
4:00 a.m. – Cubb Carson, the morning host on ROCK 97.9, showed up at the station for his regular shift. Mike Jones who normally hosts the afternoon drive on Country 93.3 would cover for Pete that morning.
Morning shows are usually pretty structured, you have the same contests at predetermined times every day and you also normally have some benchmark topics or bits that follow. We decided to throw it all out the window and talk only about the wildfire, we were the only station in the city to do so.
9:35 a.m. – The RMWB announced that Mayor Melissa Blake would hold a press conference at 11 a.m. We decided that we’d stream it live on both stations and did the same for the evening update. We wanted to be the place residents looked to for up to date wildfire information. We were the only outlet in the city to broadcast both press conferences live on-air.
The southwest fire had moved a bit closer to Highway 63 and was about 1.2 kilometres from the intersection of the highway and Airport Road. The north fire was considered as being held. Residents of Prairie Creek and the Centennial Trailer Park were still under a mandatory evacuation, while parts of Gregoire were under a shelter in place order.
2:30 p.m. – Brad went home after 18.5 hours of work.
5:30 p.m. – For this update we decided to not only stream it live on the radio, but simultaneously broadcast using Facebook Live on the Country page. It was the first time since the fire started Sunday that we’d used Facebook Live for such a reason. We had no clue how important of a tool it would become over the next month.
Residents of Prairie Creek were told they can return home under a shelter in place order along with Gregoire. The Centennial Trailer Park continued to be under mandatory evacuation.
Brad was on the phone with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry spokeswoman Lynn Daina throughout most of the evening.
10:00 p.m. – Aerial efforts are grounded due to the smoky conditions. Crews made good progress in protecting Highway 63 using a combination of dozer guards and fire retardant to build a guard. The north fire was mostly extinguished.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Things returned mostly to normal that morning with Pete, Cubb, and Brad all returning to their regular a.m. time slot. Show content was once again focused on the fire, although it was a bit more positive considering the news we heard the night before.
8:30 a.m. – A call to Lynn Daina, the Wildfire Information Officer, told us the wildfire grew to 2,656 hectares overnight but it had moved west, away from Fort McMurray. Crews had also made excellent progress on the fire break along Highway 63.
9:00 a.m. – Bombers and other aircraft were allowed back up in the air to resume fighting the fire. The weather forecast would see the wind blow from either south-southeast away from Fort McMurray, or south-southwest towards the city.
11:00 a.m. – Wildfire Manager Bernie Schmitte, Mayor Melissa Blake, and Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen held another press conference in the Jubilee Centre just outside City Hall. The fire crossed the Athabasca River, and a five hectare spot fire was now burning on the north side of the river, which quickly became the priority.
Considering there was little to no smoke or smell that morning most residents returned to daily life. Darby Allen warned the conditions to come over the next few hours would prove to be very challenging.
“[The wildfire] will wake up, it will come back, and that will be happening for the next few days at least,” said Allen. It would end up being weeks, not days, as he had predicted.
1:30 p.m – John Knox sends out another “All hands on deck” email to staff.
1:53 p.m. – Read a press release by the RMWB: “Abasand, Beacon Hill, and the Thickwood neighbourhoods south of Thickwood Dr. between Real Martin Dr. and Thicket Dr. are on a voluntary evacuation notice. Residents should prepare for a mandatory evacuation within a 30 minute notice. Residents should evacuate to MacDonald Island Park.”
By this time, most of the morning staff had returned. Brad had packed an overnight bag thinking he would be spending another long evening in the newsroom. Pete was back from a quick break, while Brad, Sarah, Taylor, and Jenna were in the newsroom with Chris Byrne, on-air for ROCK 97.9, and Mike Jones, for Country 93.3.
Over the next hour and a half staff would rotate in and out of the building taking turns to gather their belongings.
On-air hosts responded to calls live on the air, while the newsroom continued to feed the hosts important information.
3:23 p.m. – Mandatory evacuation for Thickwood south of Thickwood Drive between Real Martin Drive and Thicket Drive.
Knox recorded a message that would play over the air should we be forced to evacuate the studio. The 43-second recording would play between songs:
“The City of Fort McMurray is under a mandatory evacuation order, if you are south of Beacon Hill you should head to the Anzac Recreation Centre, if you are north of downtown Fort McMurray, including downtown Fort McMurray, you should head north to the Noralta staging point. If you are uncertain on directions just head north on 63 and follow the traffic directions from there. This radio station is unmanned. Do not call the radio station seeking assistance, call the PULSE line at 780-743-7000 or head to one of the two muster points indicated in this message, south to the Anzac recreation centre or north to the Noralta Lodge.”
4:01 p.m. – We evacuated from our studios at 9912 Franklin Avenue. “We have been forced out of the studios, we’re going to try to set up safely somewhere else… dunno how long…,” writes Knox in an email to all staff and to senior members of the Rogers team including Julie Adam, Senior Vice-President, Radio.
Abandoning the radio station was the most gut-wrenching feeling in the world. Chris, Mike, and Andrew Adoku, our engineer, hopped into one station vehicle and took off for the Timberlea RCMP Detachment to continue broadcasting remotely. Pete, Brad, and Taylor jumped into another station vehicle, but had first stolen some fuel from Northstar Ford to make it there (sorry Marty). Sarah went with her fiancé and Jenna went with her family. John was in his own vehicle and quickly went to the Detachment.
5:35 p.m. – Chris, Andrew, John, and Mike were heard trying to test the signal from the RCMP Detachment. “Testing 1, 2, 3” was heard overtop of songs.
6:00 p.m. – Brad, Taylor, and Pete arrived at the RCMP Detachment and jumped on-air to try and keep the general public calm, all the while gathering information along with the rest of the crew.
With us were Jerry and Jen Neville, former employees of the stations, now currently working for the RMWB. They were feeding us all the necessary information that we pushed out over the air. Even with their help we could barely keep up with all the information.
At one point Chris Byrne did a deep breathing exercise on-air – it worked! We’ve had a number of people tell us that Byrne’s tips helped them get through the evacuation.
Andrew did a great job keeping us on the air using wifi from the RCMP Detachment and our cell phones. Usually we’d use a cell signal for a remote broadcast but the towers were jammed with everyone making calls.
6:25 p.m. – The last on-air information update was from Jerry Neville: “This is your last update, mandatory evacuation for the entire city.”
If leaving the radio station was bad, this was even worse. You know things are rough when you are evacuated from an RCMP Detachment.
We all went south, we had been at the RCMP Detachment long enough to know the Mounties had re-opened Highway 63 through the city. Mike and Chris ended up in Gregoire Lake Estates, everyone else went to Edmonton.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
6:30 a.m. – The Edmonton-bound group finally arrived at the Varscona Hotel on Whyte in downtown Edmonton almost exactly 12 hours after leaving the RCMP Detachment in Timberlea.
1:00 p.m. – After some sleep we went to our Rogers Edmonton Cluster on Gateway, just a few short blocks from the hotel. John recorded a clip to promote the Canadian Red Cross. Over the next few weeks, the ad would play on more than 50 Rogers Radio stations in Alberta, British-Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario.
Taylor and Brad grabbed spare laptops and go into a break-off room to update social media feeds and gather news. They were quickly joined by Pete. That night we were asked to be on Dinner Television on CityTV Edmonton, a Rogers property. Pete co-hosts with Jason Strudwick, while Taylor, Chris, and Brad are part of a short chat segment about the fire.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
11:00 a.m. – We go back to our new makeshift office on Gateway and started to gather information for our first video update. Chris and Andrew head back up Highway 63 to try and start the generator at our transmitter site in order to get us back on the air.
12:11 p.m. – Pete and Brad host the first Facebook Live wildfire update, this one is filmed by Knox. This quickly became an easy way for us to replicate what we did in Fort McMurray on the day of the evacuation: answer lots of the questions and repeat critical information. Rather than doing it over the phone and on-air in studio, we were doing it from an office in Edmonton on Facebook.
8:00 p.m. – Chris and Andrew restart the transmitter. We’re broadcasting in Fort McMurray again after being off-air since the night of the fire. Although we’re not broadcasting ourselves, we were replaying some of our sister stations’ feeds.
Friday, May 6, 2016
11:00 a.m. – Our generator went off at 8 a.m., Andrew and Chris went back to turn it on again. They arranged a diesel delivery every four days to keep it up and running. Pete, Brad, Taylor and John continued the video and web updates over the next few days.
Monday, May 9, 2016
1:30 p.m. – The province held a highly limited media tour of Fort McMurray. Karp is one of 45 journalists allowed, including reporters from CNN, National Geographic and the BBC. He drove up that morning as we were only made aware of it an hour before the registration deadline Sunday night.
It was the first look the world was given inside Fort McMurray since the evacuation. Reporters tour Abasand and Beacon Hill and the bus was joined by Darby Allen, where he tells the whole world about how incredibly hard his firefighters fought to save the city. Eighty-five per cent of Fort McMurray is still standing, although it very well could have been much, much worse.
We had already known for a few days about the devastation in the hardest hit areas of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Waterways and Stone Creek, but seeing much of downtown untouched and hearing it was mostly the same in Thickwood and Timberlea was reassuring and gave us positive news to deliver.
Over the next two weeks the staff would split up. Sarah came back from camp up north and worked from our Calgary stations. Chris Byrne and Taylor Pope head to Calgary as well: Pope working with Sportsnet The Fan 960, while Byrne filled in at Mountain FM in Canmore. Pete stayed in Edmonton and continued making videos and updating social media, while Brad co-hosted Dinner TV Edmonton for a week, followed by a week in Calgary. Through the entire month, Jenna updated the MyMcMurray website from Red Deer. Cubb Carson and Mike Jones created videos providing updates from the Butterdome on the status of debit card lineups, information about donation warehouses and other important information for evacuees.
Friday, May 27, 2016
We get the official word from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo that radio has been deemed an essential service. The day was spent preparing to return to Fort McMurray the next day and get the station on-air in anticipation of the re-entry of Zone 1 on Wednesday, June 1.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
9:00 a.m. – Jenna, Taylor, Pete, Brad and John made their way back to Fort McMurray.
4:15 p.m. – We made it through the check-stop just north of Highway 881. The first thing we did was stop at the Welcome to Fort McMurray sign (which is later improved to ‘Welcome Home Fort McMurray’ by Byrne).
Our first stop was the radio station. Oddly it was just how we left it, except incredibly smoky. Taylor and Brad’s cars were still in the parking lot, unharmed. We all went home, unpacked, started cleaning and then got together for our first meal back in Fort McMurray…ribs (we were prepared).
Chris joined us the next day along with Sarah and Cubb later in the week.
Monday, May 30, 2016
6:00 a.m. – We were the first station back on the air broadcasting directly from Fort McMurray. We were ready to help you get back.
When the first group of us came back to town in late May we were surprised at how good things looked, even as members of the media we didn’t know what we were coming home to. Seeing the burnt-out trees on the drive into town for the first time was heart-wrenching, but much of the city was still intact.
Over the five days we spent in Fort McMurray ahead of re-entry we were blown away at the hard work of the volunteers and essential services to get the city back up and running.
We’re so happy to be back home and that we’re able to keep you informed and entertained again. We love you Fort McMurray. Welcome home.