The Community Within: Local Camps Offer Refuge
I was born and raised in Fort McMurray and have heard all the rumours and stereotypes out there. I have been able to provide truths and facts to help quell any of the misunderstandings to those who have never visited my beautiful hometown or to those who never gave it a chance. One area I could never speak to, however, was about the work camps surrounding our city. In fact, I kind of believed the stories I heard about them. These camps, set up by oil and gas companies to provide housing for their fly in/fly out employees, were often rumoured to be dirty or seedy. Often times you would hear people complain about how unnecessary they were, drawing work away from those living in our region. Having never really been to one of these camps, my imagination ran wild about what the living conditions were like, filled with single men who had nothing but contempt for Fort McMurray, who didn’t care about their families, just looking to make a 6-figure salary.
Never would I have imagined that I would, one day, be so grateful for those camps and the incredible people working and staying there.
May 3rd, 2016 has forever changed Fort McMurray. It began as a beautiful late-spring day: hot and sunny, with a faint smell of smoke in the air, lingering from the fire burning south of the city. As the day continued, I listened as Chief Darby Allen spoke with the media, urging us not to be lured into a false sense of security. He warned that the fire “will wake up, and it will come back – and that will be happening for the next few days”. I let out a deep breath and thought of all of my friends on the south end of town, hoping that they weren’t in for the rough day Chief Allen had spoken of. Later, I heard the news that the fire had jumped the Athabasca River and that Lower Thickwood was on a voluntary evacuation notice. I rushed from work to pick up my daughters from their Thickwood dayhome, calling my husband from the car. The panic in my voice alerting him that my previous texts and photos of the smoke were not to be taken lightly. We met up at our home in Timberlea, the kids safely tucked in their carseats, Thickwood had been closed shortly after I picked them up. Our street was bustling as our neighbors packed up their vehicles and campers, preparing to leave town.
It all felt so dramatic to me. We went into our house pulling out a backpack and duffle bag not knowing where to begin. I imagined that we would laugh at ourselves later for overreacting and being silly. We packed a few belongings into our bags, listening to the radio station as area after area was being added to the evacuation order. How long before Timberlea was added to the list? As the radio announcer closed off saying he was being evacuated from the building, we made the decision to leave despite our subdivision not yet being officially evacuated. We packed our children, and the cat, back into our vehicle and headed north as per the advisory.
We joined the bumper to bumper traffic heading north, not knowing where we were going or what would happen next. The radio came back online and we learned that we were to head to Noralta Lodge to seek shelter for the evening. As we slowly made our way along Highway 63 with thousands of other residents, family and friends, we learned that all of Fort McMurray was under a mandatory evacuation. Was this real life?
During our journey north, I followed social media and updated our family and friends of our safety. I was informed that the camps close to town: Noralta, Blacksands, Grey Wolf, had all filled up fast with McMurrayites seeking shelter and safety. Questioning what to do next, I received a text from my father “come to Barge Landing”. After receiving directions and adjusting our route, we made our way towards Fort MacKay. I hesitated to even drive that far as I was still expecting to be turned away and told to go home as there was no danger. As we pulled into the camp a short while later, we were in absolute shock from the current situation. The lodge wasn’t anything like we imagined. Mass amounts of people were milling around outside of the entrance. Men, women, children, pets. Everyone. You could tell who were evacuees, they all wore the same shell-shocked look that I’m certain we were sporting. And you could tell who the residents of the camp were, they looked completely confused as to where all the extra bodies were coming from.
What also set the camp residents apart from the Fort McMurrayites was, as time carried on and as the shock remained on the face of the evacuees, the camp residents and workers sprung into action assisting those in need.
We stood in the middle of the entrance, our family of four, uncertain what to do next. We were briefly reunited with my father as they were given access to their camp room and we added our names to a large wait list. I passed my cousin and my uncle, and heard news that my grandparents were safely at the camp as well. We continued to stand around, trying to gain our bearings as we were approached by a kind-faced man. He showed us to the cafeteria to get some food for our children, and helped us gather trays and drinks and explained how everything worked. We settled ourselves at a table, my husband and I were too wound up to eat, all the while trying to maintain our composure for the kids. Many of the camp residents who passed by the table pointed out the ice cream station to the girls, most of them exclaiming how different it was to see children there. After dinner and ice cream, we sat and waited to hear about a room for the night. One resident brought us some cardboard boxes for the girls to play in, which might sound funny to some, but those two raced those cardboard boxes up and down the halls for about an hour as they squealed with delight. Absolutely anything to keep them occupied. The same man who had assisted us in the cafeteria came up to us again and introduced himself. He offered us his room if we needed a place to stay, stating that many of his friends and coworkers were doing the same. He gave us his number in case we needed anything and offered his condolences to our situation.
A short while later, we joined another queue at Creeburn Lake, a camp down the road, to get our room as the demand became greater than the rooms available at Barge Landing. We were so grateful when groups with women and children were being given first priority. Again, that surreal feeling took over. We learned that Creeburn Lake was a lodge that had been closed down for renovations during the downturn in the economy. Largely understaffed for what was happening, the staff managed the crowd with composure, taking on many different tasks to help the evacuees without causing additional stress. We were given adjoining rooms with double beds and a shared bathroom, and we were so grateful for a safe place for our family to rest their heads for the night, not knowing what the morning would bring for us.
In the morning, we made our way south through town, leaving the hospitality of Creeburn Lake and heading towards the familiarity of my in-laws’ rural home, 3 hours south of Fort McMurray. The fire was still burning out of control.
As we drove away from my smoldering hometown, I reflected on our previous night’s experience. What would have happened had these work camps been closed down like so many had wished? What if the only option for the 88,000+ residents fleeing Fort McMurray were to head south? The camps that were so rumoured to be unwelcoming and unnecessary, opened their doors to evacuees. They cooked meals for hundreds more people, the workers opening their hearts and their rooms to those seeking shelter. Giving up their comfort to those who needed it more.
I learned, like my beloved hometown, these camps were given a bad rap. Surrounded by rumors and stories, these work camps house a community that welcomed others, cared for them as their own and help each other. Like Fort McMurray, this camp was not home for many of its residents, but the community within is what makes it a home while they are there. I find myself looking forward to the day somebody makes a comment about these work camps, so I can do my part in putting another rumor to rest and sharing what an incredible addition these camps are to our community.