Fort McMurray Fires of 2016
May 1st, 2016 started out like any other day for me. I got my giant work bin ready. Filled it with all the work gear I would need for my 11-day shift. I gave my fiancé Samantha a kiss and said goodbye and headed out on my bi-monthly 8-hour drive to northern Alberta. I live in Calgary and I was working at Suncor’s upgrading plant north of Fort McMurray. I drove to work just like any other day. As I neared Fort McMurray, I noticed smoke on the horizon but thought nothing of it, as the area is prone to forest fires. Curious, I took a few pictures (1, 2 and 3) then kept driving. By the time I got to Fort McMurray, I noticed water bomber airplanes flying close to the city which was unusual to see. I hadn’t received a phone call or email from my employer saying to stay home or that there was any danger to the city or plant so I kept driving to my final destination, Borealis Lodge.
I arrived at the lodge and started my normal routine of staying up all night and sleeping during the day. I woke up for my night shift and went down for breakfast and noticed some people were grouped together talking about the fire I had seen on my way up. I ate, grabbed a bag lunch and went to catch my bus, which takes the workers to the site. I noticed more and more people were talking about this fire so I started to inquire, as I was asleep for most of the day. The majority of workers were sent home because the fire was so close to the city, evacuations had begun to get everyone out and down the only highway out of the area. I also heard that the entire community and a number of businesses were on fire. I noticed there were no workers where there usually are. Alarmed, I asked if we were getting sent home and was told, “No” that there was no danger to the plant. After my shift, I went back to the lodge to eat and go to bed. My phone was blowing up from friends and family asking if I was OK and what was going on. I assured everyone It wasn’t as bad as what they think, but I was north of the fire and didn’t realize what was going on to the south.
On May 3rd I awoke to dogs barking and children playing in the halls of my camp. Neither is allowed on Suncor property for obvious safety reasons. I went down to the dining area and discovered it filled with people yelling, crying, and hugging, wearing nothing but pajamas. The camp had opened up to house evacuees from the city that were not able to get South in time. I went to get breakfast and the food had been rationed. I still hadn’t heard anything about leaving from my employer so I kept on as usual.
I got back to my room and looked around at the 3 giant boxes of long sleeve shirts and pullovers I had just made to sell to the guys on site for wearing around camp being comfortable after work. I thought of those poor people in the dining hall that had left their homes and how overnight they now had nothing but those pajama pants and t-shirts to their name. I thought about how much a clean, brand new t-shirt and cozy pullover would bring a small bit of comfort to these people in such distress. Immediately, I decided to bring the boxes down to the front desk and give them all away. I yelled that I have free shirts and sweaters for everyone, sizes small to double extra-large. It didn’t take long for all the clothing to be taken.
I then went back up to my room and called my fiancé to keep her posted on what I knew was happening, which wasn’t much other than rumors and news footage. She was upset, to say the least, and pleaded with me to just leave before I to wouldn’t be able too. I reassured her I would be fine. Once she was calmed down, I went about my normal routine for going to work, only now people were really starting to freak out. They were saying that the highway was closed now and everyone would have to be flown out from the Shell airport to the north.
When I arrived at my shift, I only saw a couple of the 30 usual guys I work with and my general foreman walked in with a look of real concern. He said things are really bad and everyone was being sent home except two guys to help bring the plant down to safe levels. I was asked to be one of those guys and immediately thought of my fiancés reaction when I tell her, but knew everyone in the room had someone who would worry. I said yes and stayed to help out. When I arrived back at camp it was utter chaos. The shelter that had been put in place for evacuees had been overcome so now the camp was being used as a replacement for all new evacuees. I looked around and saw families sitting everywhere; outside, in the lobby, in hallways to my room and all I kept thinking was that these people need the room more than I do. I have a home to go to. So I made up my mind I was going to leave and give my room to someone who needed it a lot more then I did.
I packed up all my stuff and loaded my vehicle, then heard the worst news possible in that moment. There were no gas stations open anymore. All gas stations had run out of fuel all the way to Edmonton, which is almost 500 km away. I kicked myself, knowing I had less than 100 km of gas in my vehicle. Then I heard a rumor that gas trucks were going up and down the highway filling stranded vehicles. I stood there debating whether to take a chance and leave, wait to be flown out or risk being trapped by a raging forest fire no one could predict. I decided to take my chances and leave. I drove about 20 km through a thick haze of smoke when I came upon some guys waving on the side of the road. They had a trailer with a giant fuel tank on the back and were filling up the vehicles of the people trying to flee. It was a beacon of hope and I knew I had a chance of getting out now. I filled up and offered to pay but the man said it was free and to be safe. I can’t describe the feeling that those words had on me but I will never forget them. I thought, “He just saved my life”, knowing Edmonton was 500 km and my tank now reads 706 km.
I drove through the aftermath of the city, past a few businesses that I was used to seeing on the drive that was now gone. There were police on every road intersection to make sure people knew where to go to leave the city and I was directed to keep moving. I felt lucky to be alive as I passed abandoned trucks, cars and trailers. I worried about the people stranded at the camp, left at the mercy of the fire. When I got home, I hugged my fiancé and told her I loved her, but couldn’t stop thinking about the people in that camp and wondered how I could help them.
I thought of what I had to give or what I could do. I remembered the look on their faces as I gave the shirts and sweaters and wanted to give that feeling again. I thought of the men with the fuel truck that had helped me. I called my print guy and said we should do up some new clean shirts and donate them. He agreed so we printed 500 white Tees with an “Albertans helping Albertans” message and I drove them to the evac supply warehouse in Edmonton.
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t much, but I believe people who wear those shirts will think about the message and pay it forward in whatever way they can. I hope when they think of the fire, they will remember what it did to bring people together. We need to look out for one another. This is why community is so important to Up North. Without it, I might not be here today.