As most of the world knows by now, the small city known as Fort McMurray has been entangled with a wildfire that has caused the entire city to evacuate. I’ve never mentioned it in the past because I never felt a need to, and I simply never had the time to, but I take on photojournalism assignments from time to time, and was sent up to Fort Mac to get hopefully get some coverage, and I felt like sharing some of the photos I captured during my short time there and felt like it’d be better to put some words with them.
This isn’t an article about what it was like to flee the city as it was burning, or about what people grabbed as they left. This isn’t an informative post about the fire, its statistical numbers, and the science behind and within it. This isn’t a blog about how helpful the citizens of Alberta and Canada as a whole have been to those who have lost their homes to mother nature.
This is a piece about what I saw when I went there the day after the evacuation; and to be perfectly honest, it’s not all that interesting. But I know that I have a few people who will be asking “So what was Fort Mac like when you were there?” and this can pretty much sum it up. …..But seriously, if you’re expecting some epic story – this is not where you’ll find it. Like… really.
So first thing first: Waking up on Wednesday morning and being told “You’re going to Fort Mac” and having to pack up all my gear, which is almost always scattered because I’m lazy like that, and having to gather clothes and travel essentials as quick as possible is a little stressful. Which now that I think of it, may actually be similar to how evacuated residents of Fort Mac felt – only with less panic and pressure since me, my home and my city was not surrounded by flames from hell. So maybe not…that stressful… by comparison…
Anyway, onto the open road we (and by we I mean Metro newspaper Editor Tim Querengesser and I) go and we couldn’t help but notice that there were a lot of cars going in the opposite direction with this light coating of brown dust on them. It wasn’t quite dirt and it wasn’t quite dust, so we imagine it was ash from the fire as cars fled Fort McMurray. Everyone’s seen the videos of cars driving next to a flaming inferno a forest, but now that we were seeing the cars covered in ash, I could imagine how close they got to the fire.
After getting a little lost because my Google Maps decided not to notify me that it was not taking me the regular route due to the fire, we finally found Highway 63, which is the primary highway in and out of Fort McMurray. At some point along the highway, it goes from a 2 lane 2 way to divided 3 lane highways. It was at this lane splitting interchange that we saw our first line up of cars coming out of Fort McMurray. I was surprised to be honest; as I didn’t think there were any car line ups left since most of the of the evacuation was done on Tuesday. But I guess a lot of people had camped out or shacked up overnight along the highway or in the small town of Wandering River, which is the only town between Fort Mac and this kind of small cluster of towns in the south.
Between Wandering River and Fort McMurray is nothing but 200km+ of highway and no gas stations. We had heard about the line ups at gas stations for fuel, since it was pretty scarce. So we tried to fill up as much as we could along the way, and had a small 10L gerry can just in case. When we got to our first gas stop, we weren’t too surprised to still see some small line ups for gas, and people asking other people who were already filling up if they can just borrow the pump to fill a gas can in exchange for cash.
As we got further into the big parts of Highway 63, we began to notice less and less cars in both directions. Then we began to see all the abandoned vehicles. Left behind due to running out of fuel. At some point we pulled over just for a quick stretch and photo of this interesting cloud in the distance (which later on turns out was the smoke cloud from the fire). While we were off in this little dirt area, a man with a truck towing a trailer asked if we were stranded. Both the back cab of his truck and the trailer were stockpiled with red canisters of fuel. Although we weren’t in need of it, it was nice to see that good samaritans were already out and about, willing and trying to help.
It was a bit of a race to get to the scene on time, as we had time constraints, but luckily the highway was quite deserted, as you may imagine, which made for quick and easy travels. But as we came closer to Fort Mac, we started noticing more and more abandoned vehicles. Some deep in ditches, some looked like they were in severe accidents. Oddly, it would seem as though many were able to glide themselves to a rest stop or a pull off area which created a bunch of small “abandoned vehicle” graveyards. At some point, there was an abandoned evacuation bus on the side of the road. I’m rather curious what happened there… and where the bus full of people went. But the amount of abandoned vehicles being so close to the city helped piece together the mentality of the cars fleeing the city. They either left so quick that they didn’t have time to get fuel, or they couldn’t get fuel either because of line ups, or the gas stations had evacuated.
At a point just 25km south of Fort McMurray, where Highway 63 and Highway 881 meet was a mass of police, trucks, and other kinds of service vehicles which essentially let us know that we would not be allowed to proceed any further along Highway 63. I was kind of surprised really, because although the smoke cloud was very large, it didn’t seem to really make the air “Smokey”. As a matter fact, I couldn’t even smell smoke. Partially due to the intense winds blowing west, but it was still surprising none-the-less. We had a very slim timeline, so we finished up pretty quickly and then sat around for a while, watching the giant smoke cloud grow bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Within just a few hours, the smoke clouds size had grown considerably in every direction and dimension. At the end of the day, I would learn that it reached as high as 35,000 feet high, and grew from 10,000 hectares to 85,000 hectares during that day. At this checkpoint made by the police, there were 2 fueling trucks set up, ready to give fuel, food, and water to any vehicles coming out from Highway 881, as Anzac was under voluntary evacuation.
Hungry, without any restaurant nearby and unsure of what to do next, we decided to try and find other vantage points and to check out the town of Anzac, a mere 20 minutes away. Anzac had a decently sized recreational facility that had been turned into an evacuation centre. We had heard rumours of the Anzac evacuation centre evacuating as we arrived into the town, and when we got to the rec centre, we found people queuing up to get onto a white tour bus that would take them to Northlands in Edmonton; though some people had no idea where the bus was going. They simply wanted to get on and go. Inside the evac centre was mostly empty already. There were empty cots all over the place, and when I say all over the place, I do mean all over the place. Cots were set up anywhere there was room. next to the vending machines, in a general sitting lobby, even along a walkway atop seating designated for sport viewing. It was a big surreal and hard for me to imagine every cot being filled and a bunch of people trying to sleep, as I’ve never had to even come close to being in that kind of a situation before.
Just inside the main door was a man making announcements on a loud speaker, saying that the buses to Edmonton were only a voluntary evacuation. But from the looks of how empty the centre was, I’d say that most people had already gone. A few minutes later, that voluntary evacuation turned into a mandatory one. On the outside of the centre were clumps of people, and whatever belongings they had with them. Some people had boxes with stuff in it, some others had proper suitcases packed. Those in a hurry or without a suitcase sufficed with a garbage bag. All of them were waiting for the buses to come and while they waited, they would stare with concerned awe at the enormous smoke cloud that loomed in the distance, slowly approaching. As the evening became later and the light darker, we began to notice the orange glow at the bottom of the smoke cloud. This was what I was really hoping to see. A fiery glow, caused by the flames and captured by the smoke.
It wasn’t quite late enough yet, so we were still looking around for any interesting ongoings, and that’s when a convoy of yellow buses passed by, on their way to Anzac. After determining there wasn’t much else that was going to happen tonight, we decided to call it a night and get some shut eye in this parking lot with a bunch of abandoned cars. That’s when the buses passed us again and we thought they went into the city of Fort Mac. So we tried to follow, and accidentally went past the police controlled checkpoint that was blocking entry into Fort Mac. Turns out the buses didn’t go in, and the police were not allowing us to go back to our cozy parking spot on Highway 881, because it was the highway that led to Anzac, which was now under a mandatory evacuation. We had no choice but to go south away from the town, and found a little spot off the side of the highway where it seemed a bunch of other people were taking refuge for the night. Immediately I noticed that the clouds (or smoke, at this point it was hard to discern the two) had a beautiful orange glow to them, and I took one last photo before bed.
I’ll be honest, I hate sleeping in vehicles. I can nap in them, but I can never sleep in them. But at least it was a minivan and I could fully stretch my legs. Not like that one time I went to Yellowknife and slept in my wagon, where I couldn’t fully stretch my legs. Oh the memories… horrible horrible sleeping memories…
Next morning we went back as far north as we could, into right where the checkpoint was again. This time there was noticeably a lot more media than before. The giant smoke cloud had dissipated and moved further east. Aside from a bit of smoke in the air, it didn’t really feel like there was a crazy fire going at all. The air was as smokey smelling as someone having bonfire in their back yard. The police still weren’t letting anyone other than essential personnel into the city, which was fair, as the fire was raging and supposedly the trees surrounding Highway 63 going into the city was on fire. By this time, there were severely fires quite close to the town of Anzac, and it was supposedly approaching our checkpoint. So police requested that we move 10km further south, putting us at 35km from the city.
Since we hadn’t really had a proper meal nearly 24 hours and we would be too far from the fire to report on anything, we decided to head back south to Wandering River in hopes of finding food that wasn’t a granola bar (which we were running low on). Weirdly, near Fort Mac, there wasn’t a shortage of water or fuel, but a serious lack of food since there was literally nothing nearby. Not much to our surprise, by now Wandering River no longer had long line ups for gas, and wasn’t filled with people trying to get food or accommodation. We drove further south to the hamlet of Boyle that night, where accommodation was also available now, as it was all full just days before. We ended up getting a glorious 5 hours of sleep in a bed, and not a van. Because sleeping in vehicles suck.
The next morning right at the first light, at the same time the the first vehicle convoys from the North were being escorted to the south through the city, we took off Northbound again with hopes of being let into the city, now that civilian vehicles would be escorted through it. The fire itself was news that everyone knew about by now, and a large majority of the civilians were already safe in Edmonton, Calgary, and various other locations; with a large amount of civilians being moved south so that they could also seek refuge. The only new development was that Anzac now had fire on it’s doorstep, and that those who fled north during the evacuation were now being escorted through the city to head south, as there were no supplies in the north. At the end of the day, it would have an estimate 12-16 buildings burned down. But what we really wanted though, was to get into the city of Fort Mac or Anzac, to see things up close.
By now, news crews from all over the world had arrived on site to report on this disaster. But even so, wouldn’t you know it, we had zero luck getting into the city, as expected. So after doing some more work, and finally seeing physical flames for the first time since arriving, we packed it in and headed back to Edmonton – for now.
I’ll be honest, I’m not remotely satisfied with how these 3 days have gone. I’ve gotten some neat photos, but nothing that no one else can get, and I haven’t gotten what I’ve really wanted to capture: The city itself. But quite frankly, sitting there day after day, reporting about a fire that everyone already knew about, and waiting to be let into the city was tiring all on it’s own. So hopefully, once the city is secured and cleared for entry, I’ll be given the opportunity to go back and bring to all my thousands of readers (ha! I wish!) a fire hand account of what it was like in there.