Some Fort McMurray residents stayed behind despite evacuation order

Daily Brew

[Crews begin to work on the burned out remains of the Waterways neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, Alta., on Monday after wildfires forced the evacuation of the town. REUTERS/Chris Wattie]

In the days since the May 3 mandatory evacuation order for the entire city of Fort McMurray, reports are now coming out about the few residents who voluntarily remained in the burning city.

Some of the holdouts were only in the city for a day or two after the mandatory evacuation order forced over 80,000 residents to flee. Roy Powell lives in Timberlea, one of the neighbourhoods that saw some homes lost in the fire and was considered at risk of further damage in the following days. On Wednesday, the day after the mandatory evacuation was issued, Powell protested the orders of an RCMP officer who came to his door and told him to leave, Maclean’s reported.

A Facebook post looking for a man in the city by the same name said that Powell had refused to leave, and the RCMP had been contacted to check on him. The 69-year-old told Maclean’s that he had wanted to stay in his home, where he lived alone, with his cat, but eventually relented and left. Others were found still in town on Wednesday and sent by bus to an evacuation centre. 

Some have stayed in the city for longer, and they say they did so to help out neighbours and protect their hometown.

Shyle Pierce’s brother Kelly left town with his family, including his pregnant daughter and two grandsons, so Pierce opted to stay behind in order to make room for others to leave. He had very little gas in the tank of his vehicle, he told CBC News, and traffic in his area of the city was gridlocked with others trying to get out. 

Pierce filled the tub of his home with water for him and his dog, and sat listening to the police scanner with another friend who stayed behind, he told CBC News. On Wednesday he checked on the homes of friends living in Timberlea and Thickwood, and he otherwise bided his time until joining an RCMP convoy out of town on Saturday.

Lifelong Fort McMurray resident Lou Callan also remained in the evacuated city for days, even after his wife and their two pets headed south. While there he surveyed some of the damage, sharing an eight-minute video taken around the city on Facebook in an attempt to show some of the damage — and some of what was still intact. The video has since gotten more than 74,000 views.

He ran errands for residents who got word that he was still in the city and happy to help, Callan told the Globe and Mail: turning on sprinklers on the roofs of homes, checking on pets and property and taking photos. But the RCMP ordered him out on Friday, Callan told the paper, and he and his wife are now staying in Lamont, Alta.

Hartley Bushell is still in Fort McMurray, despite the couple dozen requests to leave he says he’s gotten from the RCMP. His wife left, but he told CBC News he’s sticking it out. 

“This is not just a house we have here,“ he said. "This is our home.”

Bushell has also spent his time in the empty city productively, he says. He has protected his own property with water, and sprayed around neighbours’ homes as well to keep embers from catching them afire. He visited the Waterways neighbourhood, which was heavily damaged by wildfires, in order to retrieve important documents for a friend. And while there he rescued a pug, which he has since reunited with its owner via animal rescue workers.

Officials warned at a news conference Thursday that though temperatures have cooled, the city is still not completely out of danger. Bushell told CBC News that he will leave the city if it looks like he’s in danger, and that he has an escape plan for that possibility. But otherwise, he plans to stay put.

Police have not said how many people are still in Fort McMurray, aside from first-responders, but they did indicate that Bushell may not be alone in his stand.

Unfortunately, it looks like some who did stay behind may not have had good intentions. A 19-year-old Fort McMurray man is now out on bail after being charged with breaking and entering. Police say Jeffery Stodola and his family stayed behind after the evacuation order, and Stodola committed a property crime.

Police told reporters Tuesday that there are signs of forced entry at about 100 homes in the city — but while all those will be investigated as crimes, officers think that most of the break-ins were to check on pets or property left behind as people fled.