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How It All Unfolded: The Story

When you evacuate almost 90,000 people from a community, there’s a story behind each of them.

We have gathered a timeline of events, walking through the days before and after the evacuation. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Greg Halinda has shared a photo essay to tell the story when there are no words left. There are stories from those who stepped up when we needed them the most, and stories from those who had to flee. We have stories from heroes, and stories thanking them.

These are the stories that make #FortMcMurrayStrong


2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire - A Timeline of Events

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The following is a timeline chronicling the events leading up to the wildfire, the evacuation, and the recovery process. It highlights many key moments, and will serve as a reminder of all our community has gone through.


April 1-30

“Since April 1, there have been 329 wildfires in the province. All but two have been contained.” - Alberta Government media release.


Sunday, May 1

4:00 p.m. A forest fire about two hectares in size, approximately 15-20 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray, is discovered by an Alberta Agriculture and Forestry crew. Within 45 minutes, the first water bomber arrives, followed by three others from Lac la Biche, Peace River and Whitecourt. Within two hours, the fire, which is designated as Fire 9 (MWF-009), grows to 60 hectares. The fire is tagged as the Horse Creek Fire.

7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. Alberta Emergency Alert informs Centennial RV Park Campground, Gregoire and Prairie Creek of possible evacuation. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Emergency Measures Department advises Beacon Hill, Gregoire and Prairie Creek to prepare for evacuation. Centennial RV Park Campground is instructed to leave the area. The evacuation centre is opened at MacDonald Island Park. The 120-hectare fire is now approximately 4.8 kilometres west of Gregorie.

9:57 p.m. State of Local Emergency declared by Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake. A mandatory evacuation for residents of Centennial RV Park Campground, Prairie Creek and Gregoire.


Monday, May 2

1:00 a.m. Fire is 1.2 kilometres off Highway 63 and Airport Road turnoff.

3:37 a.m.  Gregoire is no longer under mandatory evacuation. Status is reduced to shelter-in-place notice. Residents are allowed to return home.

5:30 p.m. Prairie Creek status reduced to shelter-in-place notice. The fire has now reached 1,350 hectares in size. Winds are blowing the fire away from the city. “We are hopeful that we can stop this fire before it gets into town.” — Darby Allen, RMWB Fire Chief “All things considered, it is looking good. But I have that worry if the wind changes direction we are still in a perilous situation.”— RMWB Mayor Blake


Tuesday, May 3

Fire jumps the Horse River

10:30 a.m. Temperatures are as high as 32.8 Celsius, coupled with low humidity (12%) and fluctuating winds, causes an inversion, allowing the forest fire to break. Fire is now 2,600 hectares.

12:00 p.m. The fire jumps the Athabasca River, heads to the northwest part of city.

2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Mandatory evacuation notices for Beacon Hill, Abasand Heights, and Grayling Terrace. “Ready to leave in 30 minutes notice” is given to residents south of Thickwood Boulevard between Real Martin Drive and Thicket Drive along with the Ross Haven Drive East zone.

Centennial RV Park Campground and houses in Abasand Heights catch fire. Mandatory evacuation order expands to: Dickinsfield, Draper, Lower Townsite, Saline Creek, Thickwood, Waterways, Wood Buffalo, and MacDonald Island Park.

Residents are told to head out of the city.

There is bumper-to-bumper traffic as residents head south or north, out of the city.

This is the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history. “A lot of our nurses had internal struggles. (It was) not easy do to when our kids were out there.”— NLRHC Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit Manager, Pam Lund

6:15 p.m. Super 8 Hotel and Denny’s Restaurant near Beacon Hill are burning. Fort McMurray’s Northern Lights Regional Health Centre (NLRHC) evacuates 105 patients. Included are nine newborns. Staff and patients are transported to Suncor’s Firebag facility north of the city.

11:30 p.m. Edmonton’s Northlands Expo Centre is staged as an evacuation centre. More than 60,000 residents have evacuated south of the city, finding shelter in other communities, various evacuation centres (i.e. Anzac, Lac la Biche) and with family or friends.

An estimated 25,000 evacuees are housed north of the city at various oil sands work camps or Fort MacKay (Fort McKay).

Many people are stranded on the highway overnight, their vehicles have run out of gas. “Today has been a devastating day. We have had explosive fire conditions on the landscape brought on by extremely high temperatures.”— Alberta

Agriculture and Forestry wildfire manager Bernie Schmitte “We wake up this morning and we don’t see anything. And people think it’s fine and it’s all gone away… Don’t get into a false sense of security.” — Darby Allen


Wednesday, May 4

10:30 a.m. The fire is estimated to be 10,000 hectares in size. Temperatures will reach 31.9 C and winds up to 72 kilometres per hour.

RMWB Emergency Operations Centre relocated from Airport Road location to Nexen’s Long Lake facility.

2:30 p.m. Two Fort McMurray residents, Emily Ryan, 15, along with her cousin Aaron Hodgson, 19, die when a SUV and a tractor trailer unit collide at Highway 881 at Range Road 94 (Heart Lake First Nation). Ryan, a triplet, was the daughter of Cranley Ryan, Deputy Fire Chief for Saprae Creek.

3:57 p.m. Province declares a Provincial State of Emergency.

4:05 p.m. Intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 69 south of city cut-off due to fire.

Mandatory evacuation order for Saprae Creek, which according to a 2012 municipal census, had 925 residents.

6:45 p.m. CanWest Propane catches fire. Fire fighters extinguish what could have been a major catastrophe.

9:50 p.m. Mandatory evacuation order for Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation.

Public Safety Canada activates the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, allowing satellite imaging of fire from 15 space agencies. “This is a nasty, dirty fire. There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them, and it will find them, and it will want to take them.” — Darby Allen “Our message to all Albertans is that the government is behind the people of Fort McMurray and that for Albertans who wish to help, the first thing they should do is contact the Red Cross and offer donations, and additional opportunities for people to support the people of Fort McMurray will come forward,”— Alberta Premiere Rachel Notley (Global News) “The fire was found to be producing lightning and pyro cumulus clouds due to its heat and large size, which added to the risk of more fires. The fires became large enough to create a firestorm, creating its own weather in the form of wind influxes and lightning.” — (Wikipedia)


Thursday, May 5

1,110 firefighters, 145 helicopters 22 air tankers currently battling the fires in province. Airlifts to Edmonton and Calgary of approximately 4,000 evacuees who were lodged at oil sands camps north of Fort McMurray.

8 a.m. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government will match individual donations made to the Canadian Red Cross in regards of relief efforts.

4:30 p.m. A province-wide fire ban is put in placed.

6 p.m. The wildfire is moving southeast of the city and remains at 85,000 hectares in size. “It’s very dangerous right now because it keeps going back and forth and, as it’s spreading out and coming down further, it engulfs you in an area that you can’t get out of, so it’s not a good place to be at this time.”— RCMP Sgt. Jack Poitras in regards to the few Fort McMurray residents who have chosen to remain in Fort McMurray, disregarding the mandatory evacuation notice.


Friday, May 6

6:00 a.m. Fire at 101,000 hectares. A total of 12 structures destroyed in Anzac. Law enforcement starts escorting 50 vehicles at a time through Fort McMurray from the north. About 2,400 vehicles will access this service on this day.
11:30 a.m. Premier Notley announces emergency funds worth $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent.
11:55 a.m. MWB assessment of residences/structures lost: Anzac, 12; Abasand Heights, 50%; Beacon Hill, 70%; Dickinsfield, 2; Downtown, 1; Grayling Terrace, 4; Saprae Creek, 30%; Timberlea, 13; Thickwood, 1; Waterways , 90% and Wood Buffalo with an estimated 30 houses lost.
8 p.m. MWF-015, a new forest fire springs to life northeast of 
Fort McMurray.


Saturday, May 7

Syncrude Canada Ltd. shutdowns operations at Mildred Lake site due to smoke from the fire.

Various staff are evacuated from CNRL. Husky, Shell and Suncor facilities. Approximately 1,000,000 barrels of oil a day, estimated at a $70 million per day cost to the Albertan economy, was halted as a result of the fire. Fort McKay placed on a voluntary evacuation order.


Sunday, May 8

  • 1,500 firefighters
  • 150 helicopters
  • 222 pieces of heavy equipment
  • 28 airtankers

11:45 a.m. Mother Nature provides a little rain but not enough to put a dent on the fire.

Alberta Emergency Management enters Phase Two; continued firefighting but advanced damage assessment.

About 250 gas and electrical workers restoring areas of the power grid affected. 


Monday, May 9

Premier Notley and media tour parts of Fort McMurray.

A total of 13 reception centres now established in province. Several evacuees experiencing viral gastroenteritis at Edmonton’s Northlands reception centre and Lister Hall transitional shelter.


Tuesday, May 10

Allen posts to social media: “We think we’ve got this thing beat in McMurray.”

Wildfire edges 25-to-30 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border.


Wednesday, May 11

Red Cross donations reach $60 million.


Thursday, May 12

Allen steps back as Director of Emergency Management to take a break: “It’s impossible for me to thank everybody, so I just want to thank each and every person who was here and helped us fight this ring of fire.”


Friday, May 13

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets a first-hand look at the damage Federal government putting together a special committee to co-ordinate Fort McMurray aid and reconstruction efforts.


Sunday, May 15

Fire now estimated to cover 251,000 hectares.


Monday, May 16

Approximately 8,000 non-essential staff evacuated from 19 camps north of Fort McMurray. The 665-room Blacksands Executive Lodge is destroyed by fire. Air quality health index scale in region is a 16. Anything above 10 is considered a very high health risk.


Tuesday, May 17

A fire on Silin Forest Road destroys one fourplex and three separate units and an explosion in Dickinsfield obliterates a house. Both under investigation.


Wednesday, May 18

Government of Alberta government provisionally announce a phased re-entry of Fort McMurray residents, commencing June 1, 2016. Damage assessment: • 19,244 structures assessed • 1,921 destroyed • 17,156 approved for occupation • 121 limited to restricted use • 39 unsafe to occupy and seven still to be inspected


Friday, May 20

Wildfire estimated at 503,674 hectares.


Monday, May 23

Wildfire estimated at 522,892 hectares, including 2,496 hectares in Saskatchewan.

Wildfire west of Janvier classified as under control.


Wednesday, May 25

Controlled burns in RMWB ordered to remove flammable debris and limit potential flare-ups.


Friday, June 3

Donations to the Canadian Red Cross exceed $125 million.


Monday, June 6

Nearly 70 per cent of the forest fire (Fire 9, MWF-009, Horse Creek Fire), which also carried the moniker “The Beast”, is contained. Wildfire crews from around the world, including 299 firefighters from South Africa and 41 from Mexico, have tamed The Beast.


Wednesday, June 8

Access allowed for residents of restricted areas of Abasand Heights, Beacon Hill and Waterways.

Team Rubicon available to sift through damaged homes for residents.

Return date for permanent occupation of all three communities, or if feasible, is not known at the time of going to print.

Although this timeline stops on June 8th, this story will continue for years to come. We’ll continue this story throughout upcoming issues of Your McMurray Magazine...stay tuned.

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Curtis J. Phillips has been a sports journalist in print/electronic mediums since 1976. A strong advocate of volunteerism, he is a founding father of numerous local events and organizations including the Challenge Cup and Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Phillips is also recognized internationally as a sports historian.