Michel Chamberland took a look outside his home in Fort McMurray and saw that the flames and smoke were unnervingly close and rapidly approaching. He knew he had only a few minutes to escape.
“Everything you want to take,” he says. “But I just thought, wallet, passport, I picked up a bag, threw some clothes in and a small box of a few important papers and yeah, gone.”
He got in his car, capturing dramatic dashcam footage of flames engulfing his hometown. Winds whipped sparks and fires engulfed the trees.
It was “like driving through hell,” he says.
Chamberland is one of more than 88,000 people who fled the Fort McMurray wildfires and made an exodus of sorts to safety in Edmonton. Some came straight here, others sought refuge closer to home, only to have to pick up and flee again as the fire scorched more nearby towns.
Many have ended up at the Edmonton Expo Centre, where they’ve been given supplies, a place to sleep and offered assistance. Though many of them have nothing and do not know what remains of their homes, they mostly walk around with smiles, offering to share the little water or food they do have.
Car after car pulls over when they see someone walking, with those inside asking if they need anything: food, directions, a blanket.
Rob Brekke, the emergency response support coordinator at the expo hall, gets emotional when speaking about those he’s met here and how they’ve kept their spirits up in the face of sheer destruction.
“They have nothing,” the former law enforcement officer of 26 years says, choking up. “I was a counter sniper for nine and a half years, I’ve been through extreme critical situations… it starts to get to you.”
Brekke says in addition to the support among evacuees, the donations from citizens across Canada and the world – as well as from corporations – means they have everything they need to try to bring some stability to the Fort McMurray evacuees.
“We’re trying to bring back a certain level of well being, but also a certain level of norm back to their life as much as we can,” he says. “We’re trying our best.”
For some, what they’re getting at the evacuation center is all they have. Many escaped with barely any of their belongings after being forced to make heartbreaking, split-second decisions: When you only have a few moments, what do you save?
’Just the clothes on my back’
Morgan Elliott and his fiancée Cara Kennedy fled to the Syncrude oil sand camp north of Fort McMurray with their baby, Abigail, but not much else.
“Her clothes, diapers, wipes, just necessities and some food,” Kennedy says, pointing to her little girl.
The couple also grabbed a few home insurance documents and birth certificates and hopped in the truck.
“I just left with nothing,” Kennedy says. “As long as we have stuff for [Abigail] that was the main thing.”
“I left just with the clothes on my back. That’s all I got,” Elliott says.
They were thankful for the refuge at the oil sand camp, but when they heard of the opportunity to flee on the highway and head south to Edmonton, they knew they had to try. A hotel room would be a good change of pace for the three of them instead of the 8-by-12 room with only a twin bed they currently shared.
What they saw along the way was jaw-dropping.
“It was something like Armageddon,” Elliott says. “Everything was burnt, houses gone. Leaving the city, it was like a scene out of a movie. It reminded me of the TV show ‘The Walking Dead’ where you’re going on the highway, and there’s just abandoned vehicles everywhere; hundreds of cars, just abandoned vehicles.”
They were exhausted but relieved as they left the Expo Centre, where evacuees can register to let loved ones and officials know that they’re safe. Kennedy only had a bag and some food for the baby in her hand. But Elliott considers himself lucky to have found a hotel room to shelter his family.
“I know a lot of people have spent a night out in a ditch on the highway,” he says. “We were fortunate.”
They’ve checked their security system to keep tabs on their home. So far, they believe it is still standing. But as the weather and the winds change, they know they cannot be sure it will stay that way.
“It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know from one second to the next if everything’s going to be gone and everything we worked for is going to be up in smoke,” Kennedy says.
Her fiancé, holding his baby girl tight, quickly interjects: “The main thing is the three of us, we’re alright.”
’People lost everything’
Brian Canavan knows he was stubborn. He was still in his house and saw blue skies and wanted to stay after the evacuation order came. But his wife convinced him to leave so they wouldn’t have to worry about having to outrun flames.
“You can’t really rest, so that’s why we left,” he says. “Once we got out of any possible danger we could rest and sleep.”
But it meant he didn’t leave with much. He points to the camouflage jacket he’s wearing and takes his Canadian passport out of the pocket.
Canavan is also staying at a hotel, the same one as his newfound friends, Elliott and Kennedy. These evacuees, these survivors, are calling themselves the “Fort Mac family.”
For now, he believes his home is standing but he’s keeping a watchful eye.
“The repeated loops and new footage that we’re seeing, it’s just keeping so many people concerned,” he says. “There’s live web feeds you can look at, and see your home. A lot of people lost everything. Thankfully, we know right now we are currently safe.”
’We pray to God’ it gets better
Kwame Addo was at work and was hoping to get home, but was told because of the heavy flames and smoke, he couldn’t go back to the house. So he went to his company’s oil sand camp with his baby Joshua in tow.
“When it started, the first fire, we thought they’ll get control of the fire,” his wife Lelany Marenga says. She was at a different oil sands camp and hoped they’d be able to ride it out and reunite later. But the flames grew and Addo says his boss worried about all of the smoke and the danger it possibly posed to the baby.
So Addo went to get his wife at the other oil sands camp. They both immigrated here for jobs – Addo from Ghana and Marenga from Namibia. Addo says his company got them a flight to Edmonton to escape the danger and they took it without a second thought.
“This is is all we got right here,” he says, pointing to only the baby’s stroller with a bit of food and some small supplies underneath it. Nothing else. No clothes, no personal items. They never had the chance to go home and grab anything.
“My car is left with my apartment and I don’t know what has happened to it,” Addo says. “As I’m talking now, we don’t know. We just pray to God everything is going to get better.”
Hope, amid fears that all is lost
Nine-year-old Ewan Coats grimaces as he remembers the smell of the smoke as it crept towards his home.
“I see loads of water bombers, like the planes coming and splashing down water,” he says.
His grandmother, Mary Callaghan, and several other family members realized it was time to go.
“Move fast, don’t dilly-dally, grab what you can,” Callaghan remembers thinking. “Only things that are truly important. As fast as we could, we grabbed passports, identification, medicine and my jewelry. Everything else was ‘see you another time.’”
Some family members didn’t even waste time to put on socks.
“When we left, we couldn’t get out of the same area within the block or two,” Callaghan recalls, referring to the traffic jams as people tried to leave. “We were trapped.”
Eventually they fled like everyone else, but they were low on fuel and became stranded several times. A police officer came and filled up their tank a bit, an act of kindness for which they’re thankful. She’s also grateful for those who aided them at their lowest point. A truck with a group of young men also pulled over, shouting to see if they needed water. They tossed bottles out the window for her family and the police officer, she says.
Then they took off again, hoping to make it to a place to refuel. But they weren’t able to get there.
“Every time you get stranded… every time you get stranded you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says, beginning to cry. ” We were fine as long as we had gas and water, but when that happens things are not fine anymore.”
She doesn’t know the fate of her home, but fears the worst. She’s lived in Fort McMurray since 1978.
“You accumulate a lot of things. Whatever we’ve accumulated since then, it’s pretty much gone. But the only thing that was really of any value, that little dog, this little guy…” she says, putting her hand on her grandson’s head and tearing up before she could finish her sentence.
Family is all that matters, these survivors say. They are together, and they will figure out what they need to do next, even if their material possessions, gathered over decades, don’t make it.
“We got what we needed,” Callaghan says, a tone of hope in her voice. “We left, and tomorrow’s another day, right?”