Fort McMurray residents faced harrowing escape from burning city

Eden Boutilier was at her home in downtown Fort McMurray, Alta., early Tuesday afternoon, getting ready to host guests who were fleeing another neighbourhood due to the wildfire. Then her own world changed forever.

“I looked out on my balcony and I didn’t just see smoke anymore,” Boutilier tells Yahoo Canada News. “I saw flames coming down the hill towards Highway 63. And I realized that that was only a kilometre away and we were no longer safe in the downtown area.”

All residents of Fort McMurray, the gateway to the Alberta oilsands, were told to flee on Tuesday as a nearby wildfire, which began Sunday, grew out of control and crossed into the city.

“It came in fast like a fire storm,” Dwayne Angell, who lives in the city’s Timberlea neighbourhood, tells Yahoo Canada News. “I was looking at the street and I could see the smoke getting heavier and heavier.”

Angell left with his mother and girlfriend, when the evacuation order was still voluntary, at about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. He had packed his truck with supplies earlier in the day, expecting to have to get out in a hurry.

For many residents, getting out meant hours stuck in traffic on one of two roads leading out of the city of about 60,000. Many had to leave right from their workplaces, unable to return to their homes to retrieve any possessions — even pets. 

And as Fort McMurray and then nearby towns ran out of fuel evacuees were stranded along the packed Hwy. 63 that runs south from Fort McKay through Fort McMurray and towards Edmonton.

When Boutilier went to leave, along with her roommate’s dog and a friend living nearby, she realized that Hwy. 63 heading south was closed because the fire had crossed it. They initially headed north in their car, moving only a couple of kilometres in an hour.

“This was the most horrific part because we were watching the fire move, but we couldn’t go any faster,” she says.

The group changed directions when the southbound highway reopened, which was faster but still frightening.

“When we drove south there was still fire on both sides of the highway,” Boutilier says. “People’s homes were burning, the Super 8 hotel was engulfed, there were stranded cars in the ditches, and fire crews were actively trying to put out fires that had crossed the highway.”

Her car eventually made it to Edmonton, and her family members were all able to leave safely — some also to the south of Fort McMurray, others north.

Angell also left south, after hearing on a police scanner that the highway was open. As they were driving past smoke and fire in the southern part of the city, he could hear RCMP on the scanner discussing homes going up in flames and areas that were no longer safe to stay in.

“It was mind blowing. You’ve got just flames coming down on one side of you, and I looked into Waterways [neighbourhood] and all I saw was trailers burned,” he says. “As we went up Beacon Hill [neighbourhood] everything was enveloped in black. The Super 8 motel was gone, and then there was a trailer park with a lot of people who were living in fifth wheels [trailers] and that was all devastated.”

Online response

Many other Fort McMurrians on Twitter shared their relief at getting out of the city, and stories about what they endured along the way.

“Us getting out of Beacon Hill! My childhood home and everything I’ve ever known is burnt to the ground,” tweeted Holly Ayearst, sharing photos of fires burning on both side of her car.

“Packed solid with cars on road out to Anzac. Evac centre about 15min from here but a lot stopping,” Fort McMurray Today reporter Robert Murray tweeted.

Many others went online to share information about open rooms in homes, hotels and camps, and to offer space on their property for trailers and vehicles.

“We have room here at Radranch for livestock,” tweeted Samantha Radowits.

And a Facebook group quickly sprung up and filled with information on evacuation centres and people offering spaces. That kind of community support has been one bright spot, Angell says, and is characteristic of Fort McMurray.

"It will come back,” Angell says of the city. “It’ll be rebuilt. The one thing about Fort McMurray is that it’s always been a strong-standing place.”

Boutilier says the public response has been organized and professional. 

“I think emergency personnel reacted with great speed and that is seen in the lack of injuries and zero deaths reported,” she says. “I really want to thank the city and emergency personnel for their ability to keep the people of our community safe and calm.”

Angell says that while the situation changed quickly, and the work of firefighters is admirable, things were not handled soon enough given the forecast for Tuesday. He questions why water bombers were not brought in to fight the fire earlier, and why the order for mandatory evacuation came so late.

“It was total chaos,” he says. “I’d never witnessed anything like it before in my life and I don’t care to witness it again."