The view looking north toward the Super 8 hotel and trailer park in Fort McMurray that were destroyed by a raging wildfire Tuesday afternoon. DAN DESAUTELS / CALGARY HERALD
Published on: May 5, 2016 | Last Updated: May 5, 2016 1:28 PM MDT
Eric Watson knew his company’s hotel in Fort McMurray was in deep trouble Tuesday evening.
From Calgary, he could see it on fire — live on prime-time television, burning to the ground.
“It’s gone. The hotel is definitely, definitely destroyed,” Watson said, hours after the Super 8 hotel in Fort McMurray’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood became one of the first businesses lost to a massive wildfire as it swept through parts of the community.
“The first real evidence we had of it … was when the reporter was literally standing in front of the Super 8 reporting live — as the Super 8 was burning.”
The 140-room hotel was one of 1,600 structures razed in the community Tuesday. Its story — and that of the people working at it — represents a fragment of the drama caused by Fort McMurray’s intense wildfire and the destruction left in its wake.
Watson, chief operating officer for Calgary-based Masterbuilt Hotels Ltd., first thought the property might be in trouble after authorities ordered the business evacuated Sunday night as fires became a threat in the area.
However, conditions appeared to stabilize earlier this week.
Masterbuilt operates the hotel for the owners, the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Superior Lodging Corp., which also owns part of Masterbuilt.
The Fort McMurray hotel, located on a busy area along Highway 63, was built in 1999 and renovated last year at a cost of $3 million.
It employed between 15 and 30 people and, Watson noted, was the busiest Super 8 in the world during the height of Alberta’s economic boom a couple of years ago.
It had a restaurant on site and Masterbuilt was constructing another hotel right next door when the wildfire struck.
On Tuesday morning, Watson spoke with the company’s site superintendent in Fort McMurray, Dan Desautels, who’s working on the new development, a Microtel Inn and Suites by Wyndham.
The Microtel itself was under construction last year when it burned down on Christmas Day, the victim of arson. The owners had just gone through the process of tearing out the old foundation and were about to rebuild.
With the site cleared, Desautels was set to monitor the pouring of the foundation this week.
“Tuesday morning looked really good,” he said. “The sky was clear, everybody was optimistic that things were under control.”
Around noon, Desautels met his wife for lunch in Fort McMurray, optimistic the big job would soon be started. When he emerged from lunch, however, the skies over the city were hazy with smoke.
He headed to the business and police blocked the site, although he and an electrician were able to gain brief access to some trailers to retrieve equipment.
“Things just got worse and worse by the minute,” he recalled Wednesday. “The smoke was increasing quite a lot. Water bombers were in the air.”
Desautels left the hotel to run an errand but turned back as the smoke thicken. Flames were creeping closer to Fort McMurray by late afternoon and the entire city was set to be evacuated.
“At that point, the site was getting engulfed in smoke,” he said. “I could see plumes of fire shooting up in the air and just realized, there was a high likelihood the Super 8 was going to be damaged.”
On Tuesday night, the site superintendent drove about 12 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. Faced with gridlock, Desautels decided to pull over and sleep on the side of the road.
His wife and daughter — who spent the night north of the city — joined him around 5 a.m. and saw the Super 8 was gone.
Alexis Foster also saw the wreckage Wednesday morning as she drove back through the city.
The executive director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce fled the city with a friend on Tuesday afternoon, staying overnight at the Kearl oilsands camp, about 70 kilometres to the north.
At 4:45 a.m. Wednesday, she left the camp and headed back south along Highway 63, entering Fort McMurray in the early morning light to see the fire’s aftermath.
“I saw a lot of burned ash and burned trees. I did notice Beacon Hill wasn’t there. I’m not going to lie — it was fairly emotional,” Foster said Wednesday afternoon from Westlock, where she’s now staying.
“The Super 8 was pretty much down to the ground at that point … It was smouldering and you did see some metal and just pretty much ash.”
Watson says it’s too soon to say what will happen with the Super 8, which has insurance, and if the company will rebuild both hotels.
He notes the oilsands — the economic anchor for the region, employing thousands of oilpatch workers — aren’t going away. Fort McMurray will continue to need businesses and places to stay.
“It’s just a hotel building and at the end of the day, it can be replaced. But we’re thinking about all of our employees and the families,” he said.
Foster, a Newfoundland native who moved to Fort McMurray four years ago, said rebuilding businesses will be critical for the community in the months ahead, as many people have their careers at stake.
“The people of Fort McMurray are still here, we are still supporting our local businesses — we really want you, so stay in our community,” she said to any affected companies and their workers.
“Bring the community back to what it can be.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.
Fortney: For the people of Fort McMurray, a long road to emotional recovery lies ahead
Published on: May 4, 2016 | Last Updated: May 5, 2016 1:43 PM MDT
Police lead a convoy at the corner of Highway 63 and Highway 881 as a massive wildfire burns in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. A massive evacuation of Fort McMurray was held after a large wildfire struck the city. IAN KUCERAK/EDMONTON SUN
As a small-business owner who also wears the hat of mayor, Craig Snodgrass is accustomed to multi-tasking. Still, he has no regrets about recently adding another demanding role to his roster.
“He’s the greatest thing to happen to us,” says High River’s famous native son, who on Wednesday morning is tending to his own son, 16-month-old Oren. “We call him our flood baby, born from opportunity.”
Despite his current happiness, Snodgrass’s voice cracks several times during our conversation about the wildfires currently raging in Fort McMurray, a city nearly 800 kilometres north of his beloved town.
“Having to flee your home is one of the worst things you can go through,” he says. “Watching the news is making me physically sick.”
While millions share his horror and worry for the more than 80,000 people who call Fort McMurray and area home, Snodgrass speaks from experience. In June 2013, he was one of the more than 100,000 southern Albertans temporarily displaced from their homes, fleeing on short notice from flood waters rushing in at more than 1,800 cubic metres per second.
High River, one of the hardest hit communities of the largest natural disaster in the province’s history, has had a long road to recovery under Snodgrass’s watch, both in physical infrastructure as well as the long-term emotional and psychological trauma of its citizens.
“Everyone’s lives there just changed overnight,” he says of Fort McMurray. “Getting out safely was the top priority, but now getting through the next few months is going to be hell.”
Over the past 24 hours, Snodgrass has spoken with many of his fellow High Riverites about the impact this latest natural disaster is having on a citizenry still feeling from the effects of its own disaster three years later.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” he says. “I hope that when the time comes, they will reach out to us for help, for advice. We have everyone on standby right now.”
Donna Tona is another one of those Albertans on standby, preparing to help Fort McMurray heal those wounds that aren’t so visible to the naked eye. “When the fire is out, that is when the real work begins,” says Tona, a trauma specialist based out of Leduc. “It is going to rally Albertans big-time.”
According to Tona, who has worked with the Calgary Police Service and has helped survivors and first responders of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, as well as the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, the emotional effects of a fire have some unique elements.
“You’ve lost everything you own, there’s nothing to salvage,” she says.
Her aim in counselling those affected is “to first help them move to the point where the memories are locked upside of them, rather than inside a structure,” she says. “But right now, it’s all about getting out, getting safe, getting settled and waiting it out. Staying in the moment is your best protection.”
Robbie Babins-Wagner also has a message for those newly displaced people: go easy on yourself.
“If you can’t stop crying, that’s normal. If you can’t sleep right now, that’s normal,” says Babins-Wagner, the CEO of Calgary Counselling Centre (calgarycounselling.com). There is a lot of fear, anxiety and other emotions people feel after going through a traumatic event, she says, adding, “there is nothing wrong with them. Those emotions will stabilize.”
Parents, she says, don’t need to have all the answers. “As long as you can provide clarity, that they are safe, you don’t have to promise them things that aren’t doable or possible at this point,” she says. “Encourage your kids to talk about it.”
If one thing her organization’s work in High River the past couple of years has taught her, it’s that the emotional recovery process can take as long, if not longer than, the process of rebuilding houses and other structures.
“Counselling won’t provide a long-term benefit right now,” says Babins-Wagner. But in the next phase, as people move into the first of several new “normals,” she says, “it will definitely be helpful.”
Just before the province declares a state of emergency on Wednesday afternoon, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said that losing his home paled in comparison to the death last year of his 24-year-old son, Michael. He also said that Fort McMurray can be great once again — a sentiment that Craig Snodgrass seconds.
“I know it’s little condolence right now,” he says, “but if there’s one message I want to give the people of Fort McMurray, (it) is that with crisis comes opportunity … and the people of this province, including High River, will be here to help.”
Crossfield firefighter describes house-to-house battle to save homes in Fort McMurray
Published on: May 5, 2016 | Last Updated: May 5, 2016 3:09 PM MDT
A plume of smoke from a wildfire near Fort McMurray Alberta is lit up at sunset on May 4, 2016. A wildfire has forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, the fourth largest city in Alberta. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA
When they’re not rescuing Fort McMurray homes from a relentless, torrid onslaught, a hardy band of Crossfield firefighters are dodging the same flames, says their chief.
Soon after arriving in the blazing oilsands city early Wednesday, the pumper truck-equipped crew of four from the town north of Calgary went into the fire line in the Timberlea neighbourhood where homes erupt like torches, said Ben Niven.
“They do watch a lot of houses burn up but they’re able to save much more than were lost,” said Niven, who’s in regular, close contact with his crew.
“The walls of fire in the forest are right there, all they can see is orange and black smoke.”
In one instance, the firefighters spotted a house’s deck catch fire, provoking a direct watery counterattack, said Niven.
“They were able to save the house and that’s just one of many situations they’re facing…they’re putting out fences, keeping fires at bay at back doors, keeping grass wet,” he said.
His crew, he said, will fight the flames wherever their threat is greatest.
But while they’re focused on reducing the wildfire’s toll, Niven’s crew are constantly watching their own backs as winds whip the blaze into unpredictable paths.
“They’re looking for flags and wind directions to keep themselves safe, they’re making sure they’re parked in a safe zone,” said the chief.
“We have to keep first responders in our thoughts and prayers — what they’re seeing is hard on them.”
Niven said nothing could prepare his colleagues for the fury and magnitude of the Fort McMurray inferno, that “it’s hard to even comprehend what they’re entrenched in.”
And as he spoke late Thursday morning, Niven said an end to the war with the howling flames isn’t in sight.
Sixteen other Crossfield firefighters are on deck ready to spell off the current crew after it puts in an exhausting four or five-day stint.
“It looks like it’s going to be a long haul,” said Niven.
But despite the enormity of the challenge and its obvious dangers, Niven said his squad of 38 volunteers and staffers didn’t hesitate to offer their help when the call came.
Not one of them begged off, he added.
“We want to help whoever needs help,” he said.
As Niven voiced that assurance, he said the Crossfield quartet with their red aerial truck were just finishing a rest break in an area secure from the blaze.
“They’re heading back in now,” he said.
on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn