Amber Bracken/For The Globe and Mail
'Will I pack the right things?'
The tens of thousands of people forced to flee due to the Fort McMurray wildfire faced a difficult choice, often with little time
When tens of thousands of people in Fort McMurray were forced to leave their homes, they did so not knowing when they might return – or what, if anything, they might return to. Some had just a few hours to gather their belongings; some, a few minutes. The Globe and Mail spoke with five Fort McMurray residents about what they took with them and what they left behind.
Cassie White had just a couple of minutes to gather belongings from her home before the rapidly growing wildfire would make driving conditions too treacherous. Scanning her downtown apartment, the 19-year-old grabbed a few changes of clothes, some underwear and family photos – including one of her with her grandfather, who died when she was just a baby.
"There's only one picture of him," Ms. White said in an interview from Edmonton, where she is now staying with family. "I remember I had that picture when I was in Grade 3. I had no friends because we had moved from Newfoundland. I had that in school and it got me through a lot.
"I didn't take food or anything because I have a credit card. I said, 'I can put all that on my credit card; I'll never be able to buy this picture anywhere in the world.' "
Ms. White, who was recently laid off from her job as a building operator at an oil company, also grabbed her computer.
Amber Bracken/Amber Bracken
"I brought my laptop because I've been applying for jobs, and I have a lot of applications and all of my personal information on there," she said. "I forgot to bring things like my ownership [papers] for my dirt bike and my insurance policy. All of that escaped my mind because I was thinking at the time that if we spent an extra 30 seconds [at the apartment], that might be the difference between life and death."
* * *
Tuesday morning began like any other for Ariana Mancini. The Grade 1 French immersion instructor walked her dogs, had breakfast with her husband and headed to work.
"Everything was fine," said Ms. Mancini, 32. "The sun was shining. No one knew what was in store for us."
It was early Tuesday afternoon before she saw distant clouds of black smoke out her classroom window. When students asked about them, she decided to turn it into a teachable moment, telling the six- and seven-year-olds about forest fires and even taking them outside to get a better view.
"I told them, 'You might remember this day,' " Ms. Mancini said, laughing now at the irony. At the time, neither she nor anyone else suspected the biggest natural disaster in Alberta's recorded history was about to occur.
Soon, children were being called to the office because their parents had arrived early to pick up them up at school. It was only a handful of students at first, then 10, and 15 more.
"That's when I knew something was wrong," Ms. Mancini said.
She learned that evacuations had been ordered for parts of Fort McMurray, but not in the area surrounding the school. It would be another several hours before that directive was extended to the rest of the city, and frantic residents began fleeing with a raging inferno at their heels.
Eventually reaching home, she collected her two Yorkshire terriers and began to pack. Her husband, Craig, a firefighter with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, had done the same before going to work. It has been three days since she has seen him; he has been fighting fires ever since.
"I get home and I have little time to leave," she said. "My thoughts begin to race: Will I pack the right things? Have I forgotten anything? My car's clutch is acting up. Will it make it? Do I have enough gas?"
Her phone's battery was dying and she had no adapter, or time, to charge it.
"I will not be able to call for help," she thought.
The first item she grabbed was the little porcelain castle her dad gave her when she was 10 years old.
"I remember thinking I have had it for [nearly] 23 years, and I'll be damned if a fire is going to take it from me now," she said.
After that, she collected some photos, financial papers, mortgage and insurance documents, and clothes.
"As I locked the door, I thought for a brief second, 'Is this the last time I'll ever see this house?'" she said.
It took 16 hours for her to drive from Fort McMurray to her parents' home in Drumheller, a distance of 650 kilometres. She stopped twice, briefly, taking her Yorkies for a walk, buying gas, and having a convenience store breakfast of a fruit cup and a Red Bull.
After about 12 hours of driving, she broke down and began crying in her car.
"Finally, I decided that as long as everyone I care about is okay, the rest is all stuff that can be replaced," she said.
* * *
The fire had burned for two days before it threatened Emily McAteer's home. Until then, it appeared only as smoke across the river. The mother of three stocked up on food and supplies in the event the roads, or nearby grocery store, should close.
But the situation turned serious when her husband Greg, an air traffic controller, phoned home one afternoon, an urgent tone in his voice.
"Em, grab the boys and get in the van now," he said. "The fire is in Beacon Hill and they're probably going to close the highway. I want to meet up with you guys and try to get to the airport."
Ms. McAteer quickly grabbed a duffel bag, stuffing it with clothes and toiletries. She threw canned foods into a tote bag and grabbed the family's three-day emergency kit for its first-aid items.
"I was thinking of our everyday routine: toothbrushes, toothpaste. I need diapers and wipes, pyjamas," she said. The couple has three kids, ages six, four and two; Ms. McAteer directed the oldest two to grab comfort items including a blankie and a toy monkey.
With their children in tow, Ms. McAteer met her husband downtown and she followed his car, heading south. At one point, giant flames lined both sides of the highway, the thickness of the heat and smoke engulfing them. On speaker phone, her husband tried to keep her calm.
"It was an inferno," she said. "Your instincts say, 'Don't do this. It is not safe.' But [my husband] was saying, 'You can do this. I know you can do this. We're going to be fine.'"
After what felt like an eternity, but in reality was 10 or 15 minutes, the family emerged on the other side.
Ms. McAteer's six-year-old son beamed: "You're so brave – even braver than that time you held a tarantula."
In Edmonton, where the family is now staying, Ms. McAteer realized she forgot to grab the duffel bag of clothing she had packed, as well as her glasses and laptop, which contained all of the family photos. Her prized flute was left behind. She wishes she had collected some personal documents, too.
But she and her family are safe.
"We have everything that we need."
* * *
Crystal Powder and Jeff Cheecham, high school sweethearts engaged to be married in July, aren't sure whether anyone grabbed the photograph that means so much to the bride-to-be before they left Anzac in a hurry on Wednesday afternoon. Maybe their daughter Cyndel tossed it in – though she's not entirely sure, either.
It is a picture of the couple when they were in elementary school.
"His little arm is around me," Ms. Powder said in an interview at the Lac La Biche evacuation centre. "Puppy love."
She smiles when she talks about it. She is 33, Mr. Cheecham is 32. The pair planned to marry in Anzac's church and then party at the hall. But the wildfire that is consuming Fort McMurray now threatens Anzac, which lies about 35 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, and neighbouring areas.
The cloud of smoke across Gregoire Lake had grown dark that afternoon and officials warned residents they may have to leave. An hour later, they were told they had to go. The family didn't so much pack as throw things in bags.
The couple, along with Cyndel and their son Cyrus, were able to escape with their pets: a turtle, a rabbit, a cat, eight Rottweiler puppies, the pups' parents, a Chihuahua and two fish. A band councillor lent them a trailer similar to a U-Haul, to which they added a motorbike, Cyrus's dirt bike and pet supplies. They escaped with blankets, clothes and some pictures.
They left quads, a snowmobile and two street bikes. The family, like tens of thousands of people living in and around Fort McMurray, had little time to get organized. Mr. Cheecham even had to ask his boss if he could use the company truck. "He said: Giv'r. Go ahead. Take it."
* * *
Night-shift worker Chas Coley was awoken midday Tuesday by a friend who called and told him to start packing. Thickwood was being evacuated, the friend said; it was only a matter of time until Dickinsfield, where Mr. Coley lives, was as well.
The 27-year-old grabbed about a week's worth of clothes, stuffing them into plastic bags. Then he got his laptop, some important papers and his two dogs, Kaluah and Kujo.
As he scrambled to pack, the heavy equipment operator wondered how close the fire was. "Where do I go? Are my friends and family all aware and out of the danger zone? Am I ever going to see my house again?"
"I forgot to bring my toothbrush and stuff like that," Mr. Coley said in a phone interview from Calgary, where he is now staying with family. "It was just grab-and-go. As I was driving down the highway, I realized I didn't have no shampoo, no soap, nothing."