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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


Fort McMurray - Her World

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Nargis Sameer is a fighter. She arrived in Fort McMurray in 2009 on a one-way ticket with only $250 and dreams of being a successful hair dresser. She attained the latter with her hard work, and then lost it all when “The Beast” engulfed Stoney Creek, devouring her house.

“I lost it all. I don’t know what to say; there are no words,” she said through tears.

Originally from Pakistan, Nargis’ family left their homeland when she was a teenager. The family lived in Toronto, and did well in Canada. But, Nargis wanted a life on her own terms, and when a friend told her about Fort McMurray, the idea sounded promising.

“I didn’t have a car. I didn’t even know my address, and one day got lost looking for work. I took the wrong bus; and got home to Timberlea from downtown in an hour. Often there were days when I was scared to fall asleep because of loneliness. My dad is wealthy, but I didn’t want to ask for money. I knew I had to work hard for success.”

Her perseverance paid off. A week later, she landed a job with Cloud 9, one of Fort McMurray’s top hair salons.

“I finally got my own place. All I did was work. It made me happy to make others happy when I helped them look good. I quickly gained a huge clientele.” Nargis credits her boss for teaching her “things about life.”

“I used to get scared easily. She taught me to be strong, and talk to people. She was tough, but fair.”

Four years later, Nargis met her husband, Sameer through a mutual friend. They were married a year later. Their two-storey house was cherry picked among many. The couple poured their lifesavings in it. Nargis worked through her first pregnancy, securing her journeyperson ticket as a hairdresser following a tough exam. 

An exceptional seamstress as well, she would always sew her own house curtains, bed sheets, and pillowcases, even building benches for the patio. To say she was obsessed with her home would not be an overstatement. A home where friends gathered for amazing food, camaraderie and laughs, almost every weekend.

May 3 changed everything. It started out like a normal day for Nargis, as it did for almost 90,000 Fort McMurryites. She was busy cooking; her husband, a municipal employee had just returned from a night shift assuring her the wildfire was under control, and went to sleep. Around 2:30 p.m., her street was in mayhem.

“I woke my husband up, and said something was wrong. That’s when my in-laws, who live in Thickwood called and said they were being evacuated, and coming over. My husband ran to fill up the truck, and soon enough I couldn’t even stay inside the house. The heat felt like it was coming in through the roof,” she recalled. She packed a bag with milk for her two boys, aged four and two, diapers, and apples, left in slippers thinking she’d be back that night.

“We decided to go to MacDonald Island when I remembered my engagement ring, and baby photos. I could see fire on both sides, but insisted we head back. The RCMP wouldn’t let me go back,” she said, her voice breaking again.

Even when they were evacuated to Anzac, Nargis believed they would be home the next day.

“I wasn’t thinking of evacuating to Edmonton. I wanted to go home. But, then my neighbour, who is an RCMP officer called and said both of our houses were gone. I didn’t believe him, and asked for a picture. I wish I hadn’t seen that picture. I can’t delete it. I think I’ll keep it, always,” continued Nargis.

On June 7, Nargis returned to Fort McMurray from Edmonton to rebuild her life, her house, with the dream of one day starting her home-based salon.

“Fort McMurray gave me everything. My husband, kids, friends who are like family. I was nothing when I came here. I love this city. I can’t see myself leaving. I know I can start a new life anywhere. But, Fort McMurray is my world.”


Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.