Fort McMurray wildfires: resilence and strength in wake of disaster
On May 2, I woke up as if it were a regular Tuesday. I got up and dressed, packed a lunch, said goodbye to my loved ones and headed out the door. As I drove to work, I took note of what a clear, beautiful day it was out. Much less hazy and smoke than the previous days, where there were multiple fire warnings and voluntary evacuations. I thought the worst was over.
Work carried on as a regular day. I checked my emails, worked on ongoing projects – and then 1:30 p.m. hit. My colleagues and I listened closely to the radio as we heard mandatory evacuations for Centennial Park, Beacon Hill and Abasand – which is adjacent to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre where I work. I called my partner, George, and we agreed he would pack “just in case.”
Soon, a voluntary evacuation order was issued for my neighbourhood, Wood Buffalo. Worried about what was to come, I immediately left the Health Centre to head home. What I experienced next was one of the scariest moments of my life.
As I left the Health Centre, Abasand was a wall of smoke and fire. The smoke was unbelievably thick and it was hard to breath. As I left, I stared in disbelief.
After a long journey home, George and I continued packing belongings and ensured the dog was ready to go “just in case.” Soon following, a mandatory order was issued for Wood Buffalo. We threw our things in our vehicles and hit the road, fully intending to head to my parents’ place in Parsons Creek.
Thickwood Boulevard was a chaotic. With many trying to leave, it took almost a full hour and a half to get to the interchange. My parents called me franticly asking where we were, as I tried to stay near George in his vehicle so we wouldn’t separate.
I reached the bottom of Thickwood Boulevard where George and I were split up. Being directed down the wrong side of the road, I was sent north on the highway on the wrong side of the road along with several other vehicles. We were ultimately diverted south, where I hit a wall of smoke heading into town. Terrified and wanting to reunite with George, I turned around and headed north. By that time, no one was being allowed up Confederation Way and a mandatory evacuation order was issued for Parsons Creek. I called my parents telling them it was too late and that they too, would need to leave.
George and I eventually made it through the traffic and found a place to meet on the side of the road. Wanting to stick together, I threw what little belongings I had into his vehicle and abandoned my vehicle at the side of the road.
Our next move was uncertain. Do we head north to the camps on limited gas? By that point, several camps were already full and there was no guarantee we would get in … Or do we find a place to camp? George had luckily thought to bring his small camper so we decided to camp.
We drove to the old race track north of town. I called my parents and told them to meet us. With all the uncertainty, I knew we all needed to be together. After another stressful hour of them being stuck in traffic, I ran to the side of Highway 63 and flagged them down.
From there, we set up the camper, unpacked the little we had, and made supper – chicken and instant rice with no seasoning. It wasn’t gourmet, but we were thankful to have food.
After several hours of tuning into the radio, and contacting friends and family, we attempted to sleep. Our attempt resulted in about three to four hours of rest, with us waking up several times thinking over and over about what would happen to our city, our home and others in the community. I eventually read that all patients and staff were safely evacuated from the Health Centre, which gave me some piece of mind.
We got up at 6 a.m. and contemplated our next move. We knew we couldn’t stay where we were with little food and water, and with the area getting smokier by the minute. With no active gas stations in Fort McMurray, we needed to consider fuel. We had three quarters of a tank of gas in one vehicle and a full tank in the other. We determined had enough to get both vehicles to Grassland, assuming no hiccups. We ultimately decided to pack our things and head down the highway.
The drive through Fort McMurray was horrifying. The smoke was so thick you could barely breathe and the devastation was heart wrenching.
Everything was smooth sailing until we hit Wandering River, the next closest community with a gas station. Hundreds of vehicles were lined up, desperate for fuel. At this point, we were confidient both vehicles could make it to Grassland so we continued on past the slow moving traffic. Shortly after, we hit a standstill. At this time, we were getting lower on fuel but we were conifident we had enough to get us to the next gas station.
However, time set in. An hour later, we were extremely low on fuel. Our vehicle was on fumes as we stopped, started, and drove the vehicle in neutral for the next few hours. We contemplated abandoning the vehicle and joining my parents, but ultimately continued on. It was 30 degrees out, and with limited air conditioning we were feeling it and our dog was feeling it. It was beginning to feel hopeless.
We then had a saving grace. George found three very generous men who provided us with the diesel we needed to get us beyond Grassland. We were so incredibly grateful for their support. This was only one example of the generousity we experienced, as several people walked and biked up and down the miles of traffic offering water and refreshments to the people stranded.
After over eleven hours, my family and I made it to Edmonton. After such a scary ordeal, my family and I were thankful to arrive at a hotel housing many other evacuees. It was a painful few days, as we heard of many friends losing their homes and experiencing the uncertainty of both our homes.
George and I knew we needed to find more sustainable accommodations both for ourselves and for our dog, so after three days in the hotel, we set off for Dawson Creek, B.C. Since then, we’ve been spending much time on his family farm – a much needed break from the chaos.
There continues to be painful moments and we miss home fiercely, but the support of our family, friends and local business has been remarkable.
I love Fort McMurray and I simply cannot articulate everything it has done for me and my family. I cannot wait to be home, pick up our lives, and become an even stronger, closer and more resilient community.
Thank you to the many firefighters, RCMP officers and other Emergency First Responders who are working tirelessly to save our community. And thank you to everyone across Alberta, across Canada and across the world donating their time and resources to helping evacuees. Your generosity is appreciated and will not be forgotten.
I’m thinking of everyone and cannot wait until we’re together again. Together, we are #FortMacStrong.
Photo caption: Amelia Schofield and her partner, George take in the 2015 Festival of Trees Gala hosted by the Northern Lights Health Foundation.