‘Please, everybody leave and don’t look behind’

Miranda Gathercole, who spent 18 months working in Fort McMurray, speaks with friends and former colleagues who've fled the wildfire

Joey Bossé captured this photo from the Grant MacEwan Bridge on Tuesday night. He and his wife were part of an exodus of more than 80,000 residents from Fort McMurray. He calls it “the worst catastrophe I saw in my life.”

The images are haunting.

Bright red flames hugging the sides of Highway 63 as 88,000 people frantically flee Fort McMurray, Alta; thousands of motorists trapped in crawling traffic under a smoky haze with nowhere to refuel; charred remains of houses that just days before were where families called home.

While watching the footage of Fort Mac going up in flames, my heart has been aching.

Having worked in the oil patch for a year and a half, I can’t help but think of friends, former colleagues, and other comrades who have lost everything.

Beacon Hill, an area where 70 per cent of homes are gone, was where Kevin, a friendly inspector from the East Coast, would host barbecues at his house on Sunday nights.

It had already been a hard year for his family with work drying up, and now his home could be gone, too. He is safe with family in Calgary for the time being.

And Timberlea, which as of Thursday morning had largely been left untouched, was where we spent many nights celebrating a long week of work with a beer (or two) at the Canadian Brewhouse.

“Please, everybody leave and don’t look behind!” one former co-worker, Joey, posted on Facebook along with a terrifying photo of flames surrounding his vehicle. He and his wife are now at a friend’s place in Whitecourt.

Another good friend, Nicole, was evacuated Wednesday morning from Wapasu Lodge — about two hours north of Fort McMurray near Kearl Oil Sands — to make room for evacuees from town. Imperial Oil flew all non-essential employees home, leaving only 11 people left on site.

Camp Workers offer beds to evacuees

In other camps, such as Beaver Lodge near Syncrude (about one hour north of Fort McMurray), workers have been volunteering their beds to families and sleeping in the hallways instead.

At Joslyn Creek, a Clean Harbours Camp near CNRL Horizon Oil Sands (also about one hour north of Fort McMurray), food rationing has been mandated.

“Site yesterday was filled with heavy smoke,” another former co-worker, Marco, said via Facebook messenger on Wednesday.

“Many people I was working with lived in Fort Mac, and had family at home and school. Many of them left work at noon and were able to get to their families in time and make it south before the highway was closed.

“Several employees, however, did not make it out before the highway closed and had to retreat to camp, where some of them were put on flights at 2:30 a.m. to Edmonton.

“As of 5 p.m. last evening (Tuesday night) many evacuees were starting to arrive, women, children animals; the place was packed. Due to the limited resources, food rations are now in place, with bottled water only being served at meal times, limited food at dinner and limited food for lunch. Camp has advised us that they will further ration food as they see fit.

“Tensions are high on site, with many people uncertain if they have a home to go back to. But at the moment CNRL is assuring everyone that fundamental resources will be provided and everyone is safe.”

The new normal?

So far, the fire has reached 10,000 hectares in size and destroyed at least 1,600 buildings.

And even worse, according to some analysts, mega-fires like this could become the new norm.

If you were given just minutes to leave your home in an emergency, would you be ready?

Although there may not be the same risk of wildfires in Langley, the threat of a major earthquake is very real.

Residents, including myself, need to make sure we are prepared to survive a natural disaster with little to no notice. An emergency kit, including enough food and water for three days, is a must.

Another friend of mine living in Fort St. John, B.C. is building one right now. With smoke drifting into town from several fires surrounding the area, Laura says she is not taking a chance.

“It makes me super nervous. With the heat and fires surrounding us, if the wind changes, it could happen here, too,” she said via Facebook Messenger.

To help those displaced by the fire in northern Alberta, contributions to the Red Cross can be made online here or by texting REDCROSS to 30333 to make a $5 donation.

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