'All of a sudden, it was dark in Fort McMurray': Residents share experiences fleeing flames

 

 

Smoke fills the air as people drive on a road in Fort McMurray, Alberta on Tuesday May 3, 2016. GREG HALINDA / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Residents of the subdivision of Abasand wait in their cars to leave the subdivision in Fort McMurray Alta. on Tuesday May 3, 2016. The subdivision had been placed under a mandatory evacuation Tuesday afternoon with wildfires threatening the region. ROBERT MURRAY /  FORT MCMURRAY TODAY

 

Reporter Trevor Robb spoke with five individuals fleeing flames Tuesday in Fort McMurray. Here are some of their experiences:

Name: Brendan White

Age: 28

Neighbourhood: Thickwood

“I was at work and I got the call from my administrator that we’re all … to go home and pack some stuff … But by the time I got back to Fort McMurray, it was just chaos — people were jumping the meridians, speeding up the highway. It was just complete chaos.”

“Our company was nice enough to book 10 rooms for all of our employees and their families — it’s the Clean Harbors camp, out by Suncor. We have a couple rooms at the camp where we’re going to stay and hopefully ride this out.”

“Traffic is bumper to bumper. The gas stations are lined up out through to the road, cops are in the middle of the streets, some people are purposely driving into one another. It’s madness, absolute madness.”

“Right in front of me, the cloud of smoke is coming straight for us and we’re in the line to go out (of town). It almost seems like there’s two sections burning, because in between the two billows of smoke there is clear sky.”

“The ash falling from the sky is the size of toonies and loonies. It’s raining ash from the sky.”

Wildfire burning in Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 3, 2016. GOVERNMENT OF ALBERTA

Name: Jason Beck

Age: 40

Neighbourhood: Eagle Ridge

“I got up this morning and decided to get my haircut. It was a beautiful day, and while the fires were bad, they weren’t burning towards the city. But within an hour of getting my haircut, it just exploded and the fire starting coming towards us.”

“When I was downtown, the flames were all around. It’s literally dark down here because there’s a cloud of smoke totally engulfing the city. There’s undoubtedly a lot of people who are going to lose their homes today.”

“It’s kind of surreal. I’ve talked to some friends who are having panic attacks and are freaking out. It’s one of those things where you cannot predict what the final outcome will be. Potentially, for a lot of us whose homes might not be affected … our city will be affected to the point where business will not be as usual for a while.”

“The one thing that always stands out about this city is the resiliency and its ability to cope with a lot. The beauty of tragedies like this is you really get to see the spirit of the community. So many people have stepped up and done so much to help one another. It’s that spirit of the city that is so amazing and is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.”

Name: Russell Thomas

Age: 48

Neighbourhood: Downtown Fort McMurray

“I left town shortly before noon to go to a workshop that I was facilitating at the Mark Amy Treatment Centre, which is right near Anzac. When I left, everything was 100-per-cent fine, there was no smoke, no flames. But when I saw what was happening, I hopped in my car to try and reunite with my family — my wife, Heather, and my two sons, Dylan and Dan — but I didn’t make it.”

“Luckily, my family is fine. Thank God for social media. I can’t imagine what people are going through right now that are separated and that cannot connect. It really is a catastrophic event.”

“The amount of wind that was being generated by the heat was the most frightening thing I’ve seen in my life. It felt like we were in a war zone. It was crazy.”

“Being a former municipal councillor in Wood Buffalo during the Slave Lake fire, I was so fearful of something like this and to see it happening today is just unbelievable.”

“Traffic was very slow, but people were incredibly thoughtful. My fear was for the (people) in the back of the line near the fire … but it’s the challenge of a community with one road in and one road out. In situations like this, it is extremely difficult and it begs a conversation re-start of alternate routes. We are in the eye of the storm because of the fact we only have this one way to get into the community and out.”

Fort McMurray fire on May, 3, 2016. Courtesy of Mary Sexsmith.

Name: Taylor Braat

Age: 22

Occupation: Radio host at 103.7 FM

“I was actually on air until we were told of the evacuation. All of our voices on air … you could tell they were all shaky. I was getting phone call after phone call of people asking me what is going on. And then I got a phone call that the Fort McMurray Golf Club was on fire.”

“In the morning, it was clear skies. Then, in the matter of 20 minutes, all of the smoke came downtown. We had the forestry manager come in for our segment Fort McMurray Matters. He was in our studio and you could just see it getting gradually worse. And then all of a sudden, it was dark in Fort McMurray and the sun was red.”

Name: Glen Stromquist

Age: 58

Location: Fort McMurray Wal-Mart parking lot

“As far as I can see, there are no buildings burning here. I’m in the Wal Mart parking lot; it’s probably about half full and there are a lot of people just kind of milling around.”

“I’m not worried about my safety because I’m about 200 metres from the Clearwater River, plus I’m in the middle of a big, paved parking lot. If push comes to shove, you go in the river.”

“When they first issued the evacuation order, the downtown streets were just gridlocked getting out of here. To me, getting stuck in gridlock traffic when a fire hits is a worse situation than where I’m at.”

“When I got up this morning, there was blue sky and no smoke. So I walked over to the Smitty’s and had breakfast. By the time I came out and walked back to the hotel, there was one huge column of smoke. The fire was creating its own wind and you could feel it.”

trobb@postmedia.com

twitter.com/suntrevorrobb