Escaping Fort McMurray


By Thomas Zimmermann l  May 13, 2016 | As seen in Issue 245


     I wasn’t sure if the wood smoke I smelled was coming from my clothes or still lingered in the air, but I couldn’t escape it.  We had just returned to our house after a voluntary evacuation the night before because of the wildfire west of our busy northern city, Fort McMurray.  I had taken my lovely wife to the airport the day before so she could embark on a much needed rest, joining her Mom on a quilting cruise to Alaska.  (I know, I had no idea they had those, either)  I would take care of the kids with the help of a family friend while I continued to work my shift, my lovely would have an exciting adventure, and life would be good, right?  I had no idea what was about to happen.  Then again, no one did.

    It was Monday morning, and because of the late night voluntary evacuation the previous evening, I kept the group of seven with me.  Little Princess Olivia (my blonde haired, blue eyed 4 year old) helped me make pancakes, we played games, everyone went to the park down the street or rode bikes in our little circle.  Life was almost normal, except Mom wasn’t there.

    The skies were clear the next morning, crystal blue actually.  But, as I was to find out later that was only due to what’s called a temperature inversion, causing the smoke from wildfires to lay low.  A false sense of security and safety.  After the outside temperature warmed, about 2 in the afternoon, smoke started to billow in huge clouds to the west of our little house, and grey ash fell from the sky like dirty little snowflakes, coating Vincent the Van, the camping trailer that was still hooked to him, and probably everything else in Fort McMurray.  It was almost pretty, save for the angry smoke in the sky attempting to block out the darkening red sun.

     That night I assured my seven babies that everything would be all right.  Daddy would make sure nothing harmed or hurt them, and that we would evacuate again together if need be.  Kisses and hugs, bedtime stories read, eyes shut and sleeping kids.  Daddy went outside and looked at the sky as night fell.  All I could see was many dangerous shades of red from the west.  And lots of thick, black, angry looking smoke.  The radio said everything was under control, but to be ready just in case.  I slept fitfully that night, waking to listen to the radio, check social media, look outside, anything to somehow find reassurance that my little group of seven would be okay. 

    I must’ve slept that night, because I woke to the alarm telling me it was time to get the kids ready for school.  I looked to the west from the kitchen window.  Again, everything looked calm, serene, and as it should be except for the mound of ash on the small deck we had.  Breakfast made (cereal), lunches packed the night before, and everyone except the two smallest headed out for school.  Mid-morning I got a text from the family friend explaining that she had slipped a disc in her back and wouldn’t be able to help out with the kids.  My shift was the next day.  Now what was I going to do?  I told her not to worry about it, I would figure something out, and to get better.  Remembering that my lovely had promised friends of ours that I would repair the front door at the rental property they owned, I packed up my two babies and headed for the hardware store.  It was 10AM. 

    By the time I found what I was looking for as a replacement door handle, the clock read 11.  Good enough, I’ll just pick up Zachy-boy from kindergarten on the way.  I texted the tenant to make sure this would be okay, and she assured me that she would play with the kids while I repaired the door.   Good enough.  Off we went.  I got to the house about noon after picking up a pizza for the kids to munch on while I worked.  We all met the tenant at the door, and as promised she scooted them out to the back to play with Bailey the St Bernard cross and I got to work.  Fitting a new handle into the door, making adjustments, and finally satisfied with my work, I thanked the tenant for looking after the kids, and she happened to mention that she used to babysit.  To my relieved surprise she agreed to look after the kids for a couple of days.  Whew, two days covered so I can work my shift. 
12:45 and me and three of my kids were on the way south towards our home.  I glanced to the West, and where it had appeared calm an hour earlier, the converse was true.  Huge plumes of smoke covered the sky.  I wondered how much control was being maintained on this fire.  In between country songs and radio ads I heard only, “Please remain calm, and shelter in place.”,.  I kept watching the sky as we got closer to home.  The smoke was getting worse.  And Daddy was starting to get worried.

1:00.  The neighbour spies us pulling into our parking spot and waits as I park our faithful Yukon.  He also happens to be the trailer park manager. 

“Hi, Jim.” I start as I get out of the truck.  I motion towards the clouds. “Whaddya think?”
“Well, we’re going to head over to the old school if it gets any worse and wait it out there.  Concrete structure, steel roof.  We’d all be safe there.  Just come on over whenever.”

By this time the 3 younger ones had gotten out of the Yukon and were heading for the house to hopefully fill their little bellies with lunch.  I hurried inside with them, and made the quickest hot dogs ever. 

2:00  The phone rings.  It’s my oldest, asking if it’s okay to get a ride from a friend home, because the school is closing due to the fires.  I agree, but please be safe, dear girl.

2:15 The other school calls, asking me to come pick up the kids.  School is closing.  I tell them I’m on my way. 

2:17  I’m standing outside, contemplating how to get this all done, when Jim hurriedly comes over and yells, “Mandatory evacuation!  We have to get out in 10 minutes!”
I quickly strap the 3 youngest kids into Vincent now, and run inside, grabbing the laundry basket in the hallway and scooping whatever clothes I can find for the kids and myself, remembering to grab the package of marriage birth certificates on the way.  Tops of dressers cleaned off, diapers, wipes, a few bottles of water, some snack bars and I run back outside.  I hear explosions behind me as I run for the van, literally tossing the basket of whatever clothes into the trailer, praying that the 3 kids have decided to behave and are still in their seats.  Thankfully, they are.  As I start the engine, the radio comes to life and the first thing I hear is that the main road through town is now blocked due to fire.  This is a huge problem.  Four of my kids are on the north side of that fire, and I’m on the south!  Not caring if any cop sees me at this point, I frantically dial the school as I put the van into gear.  Trying to be polite, and after informing her that the road is now impassable, I ask the principal what is going to happen to my 3 kids.  A brief pause and then,  “Mac Island!  They’re going to Mac Island!  I have to go, it’s very busy in here!”  And then click. The line is dead.  I am being forced to leave 4 of my children in a wildly burning city with strangers.  And I can do absolutely nothing about it!  I promised them safety!  Tears are trying to force their way into my eyes, and I blink them away just as forcefully.  I don’t have time for that right now.  I have to think, think, think!  Please try to think!  What can I do?  What can I possibly do to save my kids?  Reason re-enters my mind as the tears are forced away and I start going through a mental list of people I know in this city.  People that know my kids, and know how much I love them.  Renee, Hugh, Mike, Sasha, Barry, Glen… the list grows, and I have numbers for all of them.  I start texting, imploring them to look out for my kids as they get to Mac Island.  Please!  Every single one promises to, and assures me they will be cared for.  I can do nothing else for those three beautiful children.  I have to leave.  The police are making me leave!  I’m so sorry, babies!  I have to go!  I don’t want to go south, everything in me screams to go north, fight through the fire and find my kids!  Then I look in the rear view mirror and see three more beautiful children, obliviously trusting their Daddy to take them to safety.  They are quiet and wide-eyed as we drive past a field completely engulfed in flame, trees exploding from the intense heat, and as I look in the side view mirror I see just how dangerously close those flames are to the trailer we are pulling. 

Accepting that this is the way things must be at the moment, I text my oldest daughter, also with an almost complete stranger, encouraging her to be brave, to keep a clear head, and that I will find her.  I promise myself that I will find them, I will have all of them back, and I will not stop until I do.  I pray for my kids, asking God to protect them, asking for angels to guard them.  Just as I finish, the phone rings.  It’s my wife!  My lovely, beautiful, cruise- shipping wife!

“Hi, sweetheart” I begin.
She is near panic, “What’s going on?!  I just got a call from the school asking me to come pick up the 3 kids at Holy Trinity!  Fort McMurray is on fire???” 

Miracle number the first one.  My lovely’s cruise ship had drifted into close enough cell range at the right time to tell me that my kids were going to be at Holy Trinity school, and not Mac Island.

As her call starts to fade I tell my lovely that we are evacuating, and I don’t know where the kids are, but I will find them! 
The other line starts ringing.  It’s the tenant from earlier in the day, the one I’ve met twice, ever.  Time for miracle number 2…
“Are you okay?  Is there anything I can do to help?”  She’s on the north side of the city, close to my kids.  Very close.  I choke back heart bursting tears as I say, “I need someone to pick up my kids at Holy Trinity!”  She assures me she will, and then her call also fades.  Cell towers are burning now, or overloaded, but in any event leaving Fort McMurray in a communications blackout.  I put my phone down, and suddenly there is peace.  I don’t know where my kids are, but I know who will take care of them.  We are in an immense line of traffic, leaving Fort McMurray with thousands of other people.  Surprisingly, and oh so thankfully, no one panics, the exodus is orderly, and everyone gets out safely to Anzac and points south, or so we thought. 

Part 2 next issue.