Hell hath, no fury

Letter to the Editor

By Carol Parsons, Fort McMurray resident

A water bomber in the air by Fort McMurray’s Super 8 hotel in Gre- goire on May 3. Photo by Dawn Booth, Connect Weekly

A water bomber in the air by Fort McMurray’s Super 8 hotel in Gregoire on May 3. Photo by Dawn Booth, Connect Weekly

May 3 started out very warm and windy, not the best conditions for a lurking forest fire, but we couldn’t see or smell any smoke. So, we didn’t think about it. Out of sight, out of mind – so to speak. We had, after all, been down that road before.

There was one difference this time however, one ominous sign… it was raining ash. It was coming down like snow. I had swept off my deck and my friend was now hosing down her driveway.

I was getting ready to travel to Edmonton with my brother and my nephew, and we were just waiting for school to get out. At 1:52 p.m., my sister phoned to tell me that the fire had jumped the river and they were now evacuating the golf course and their home in Wood Buffalo was now under voluntary evacuation.

From the window of my Timberlea home, I could now see huge black plumes of smoke coming from that direction. Not realizing the size of the fire or the speed with which it was now travelling, we naively thought perhaps we should head out of town a little earlier, just in case – you know, what if they decided to close the highway?

So, at about 2:20 p.m., we hopped in the vehicle and headed towards Confederation Way. Within minutes, we realized that something much bigger was happening. We had barely made it down the street and were already in gridlock.

Our sunny skies were turning grey and smoky, there was a steady stream of sirens and emergency vehicles all around us, the radio was announcing evacuations and the texts and phone calls were coming in fast and furious from concerned family and friends.

Now at the bottom of Confed and heading south on Highway 63, the smoke was getting thicker and huge walls of fire seemed to be everywhere.

Heading up Beacon Hill, we came upon a school bus stuck on the side of the road. It was wedged in a rut and there were several men working frantically to get it out. It was tipped to the right so much, it almost looked as it might just fall over.

I thought as we approached it, surely they got the kids off that bus. But my heart sank as we drove past and I looked up and saw that it was completely full of kids. There was nowhere to stop, every lane going up and down was now bumper to bumper traffic and everyone seemed very anxious to either get out or get home to their families.

Nearing the top of Beacon Hill, we could now see people driving their vehicles over the embankment trying desperately to get out. The hill is quite steep with a deep dip on the side of the highway and it seemed impossible for these vehicles to actually get on the road.

We watched as one man repeatedly rammed his truck against the road, but just couldn’t get out of the ditch. It appeared that several vehicles had already been abandoned. The smoke was now getting quite black and thick with an eerie orange glow in the background, I could taste it and it was becoming very difficult to see.

My brother was inching his way along, just hoping not to hit the vehicle in front of us. There were several police officers wearing respirator masks standing in the middle of the intersection directing traffic. Visibility was terrible.

The Super 8 hotel and Denny’s were on fire as we passed, but I could not see this as the smoke was now too thick to see through. Either that or panic was setting in.

The campground just past this was fully engulfed with flames reaching perhaps 20 feet in the air. There was fire everywhere, on the grass beside the highway, in the ditch between the highways and we could now feel the heat in the vehicle.

My 13-year-old nephew was sitting in the back seat, not saying a word. And then we drove out of it. It was literally night and day. We pulled over on the side of the road and just stared in disbelief at what we had just driven through.

It was just black, as high and as far as the eye could see. It was relief and despair all at the same time, we were so thankful to be out, but we knew that so many more were now running for their lives on the other side of that black curtain.

We stood there on the side of the road for the longest time, just trying to take everything in, as did so many others. The water bombers were flying overhead non-stop, disappearing into the huge clouds of black smoke as quickly as they appeared, it felt like we were in a war movie. Shortly after we ‘got through’, a gas station blew up and the highway was closed.

My husband and my cats, my family and friends were all behind that wall of fire and I now knew what they had to drive through to get out. Some went north, some waited for the highway to open again. Most had very little gas and there was nowhere to go to get gas.

There was no sleep for us that night, I suspect there was no sleep for nearly 88,000 others as well.

The calls eventually did come through, my husband made it to Athabasca at 5 a.m. It took him approximately nine hours to travel what is normally a three hour drive. My family and friends and all of our pets were safe.

It would be days however, before I really believed that everyone could have possibly made it out of that hell alive.
On that day, I had no concept of time, no idea how long it took for us to get from my home to safety. Fear has a way of making you lose total track of time, and making you remember exactly where you were at the same time.

Thanks to text messages and phones calls, I was able to go back and create a timeline of sorts. We left my home in Timberlea at about 2:20 p.m., and I texted my husband to let him know that we made it through at 3:19 p.m.

Normally, it would take perhaps 15 minutes or so to reach Beacon Hill from my home. We would soon learn that doing it in under an hour on that day was a record setting. It took one friend more than five hours to get from her Thickwood home to the bottom of Confederation Way.

We are now back home and I find myself thinking about all those stories and pictures and video clips of people, not just evacuating, but escaping – some barely with their lives.

I think about those people scrambling to get over Beacon Hill and all those children on the school bus. I am humbled and overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers, the heroic efforts of our firefighters and police and animal rescue organizations, and the unbelievable things the Red Cross has been able to do for our community.

I am very glad to say we still have a home and it is undamaged and I am so very thankful for that. The trees are gone from behind my house. They were, but a few feet away before the fire. Now, it’s just a big, open field.

The trails behind our fence are gone, the only remaining signs of them are a flattened park bench, a bent up garbage can and a twisted chain link fence, all evidence of the ferocity and desperation of a bulldozer and some amazing firefighters.

I am sad to lose it. But as I sit out there, I imagine what it must have been like just a short time ago. And I am thankful, so very thankful.

– Connect Weekly –