As the fires raged, when most everyone else was leaving Fort McMurray, Lou Callan stayed put.
Along with a small contingent of residents of the Northern Alberta town who refused to leave – or sneaked back in – Mr. Callan stayed in the city for more than three days after the mandatory-evacuation order was issued, when most of an estimated 2,400 houses and buildings burned.
The 51-year-old spent his time driving around, trying to avoid the RCMP and doing tasks and chores for people who wanted to be there, but couldn’t. His photos and video of the cityscape in the days after the evacuation gave thousands of people an early glimpse of whether their homes were still standing or not.
“I was just helping. That’s all,” he said in an interview from Lamont, Alta., where he and his wife are now staying at a hotel.
An eight-minute video he posted from a drive around the town on Thursday last week has garnered more than 74,000 views. In the video, Mr. Callan, with a friend, point out which neighbourhoods and streets are still standing, and which are in better shape than they expected – punctuated by a colourful commentary as they travel the empty streets.
A lifelong resident of Fort McMurray, he also sent his regrets to those whose homes appear as rectangular lots of black ash.
“Sorry for your loss, people. It was a quick ride. We made it back down town and cops already had barricades going up the hill. Not like we’re out trying to loot anything or cause any damage,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Thank you so much. My house looks like it’s still standing!” said one grateful post in reply to the video.
“Not all heroes wear capes, man.”
Mr. Callan said he was finally “kicked out” for good by the RCMP on Friday evening – the same day he saw another huge wall of flames coming toward Fort McMurray.
Three days earlier, on May 3, he had sent his wife, their dog and cat and some possessions south down Highway 63 in their small SUV. “There was hardly any room in the SUV,” he said, in explaining his decision to stay at their downtown Fort McMurray house while more than 80,000 people left the area.
The first 24 hours after his wife left were “pretty tense,” said Mr. Callan, a scaffolder and trapper who also owns a paintball business.
“I sat on the roof and watered the roof and watered the grass, and watched my neighbour – an older couple that lives right across the street. And he’s 80 years old and he didn’t want to leave.”
Over that Tuesday night, he kept a close watch on the flames against the dark sky. He could hear the explosion of propane tanks in the distance, along with the buzz of helicopters. A block away, two houses caught on fire. He didn’t get more than an hour of sleep.
In the next couple of days, Mr. Callan made various forays from his house. His own vehicle broke down, but he borrowed a neighbour’s truck.
He roamed the “ghost town.” Occasionally, an emergency vehicle would drive by. Carefully, he made excursions into neighbourhoods in other parts of the city to check on homes. Once word got out that he was still in Fort McMurray, he got calls, texts and social media messages from people who wanted him to see if their windows were smashed or to check on a pet. He even turned sprinklers left on rooftops by homeowners on and off, depending on reports about where the fire was heading next, or what neighbourhood was safe.
“They didn’t know if their house was burnt down, or still standing,” he said.
“I tried to sneak around and take pictures, and send it to them on Facebook,” he said. “I even created a lot of new friends because they heard I was in town and doing this.”
Mr. Callan said his house had power the whole time he was there. He borrowed a jerry can full of gas from a friend to fuel up the truck. Three or four times over the course of last week, he said, the RCMP saw him and told him to leave the city.
“I would just pretend I was leaving and sneak back to the house,” he said, adding that it’s now hard to be away from Fort McMurray.
The RCMP said they have found some residents still in the city over the past week, despite the massive evacuation, and had moved to get those individuals out. They will not disclose how many they believe stayed in the city.
On Tuesday, Sergeant John Spaans, an RCMP spokesman, said in the fire and its aftermath, people are still being kept out of the area because the presence of civilians in the evacuation zone has the potential to hinder emergency operations, including firefighting and the movement of equipment.
“If those civilians end up in a dangerous situation, or make the wrong turn, then we have to divert resources to deal with that new emergency,” he said.
“It is still a very dangerous place. There’s always still the threat of fire,” along with other hazards, Sgt. Spaans added.
But Mr. Callan is proud of getting important information to his neighbours and other Fort McMurray residents about their homes last week. “A lot of people needed closure.”
And while he believes that the local fire department did a good job in “hustling” to protect the city, he thinks there should have been more efforts put into stopping the forest fire before it reached Fort McMurray. He said in the past years when flames threatened the community, he saw significantly more firefighting water bombers working.
“That was my hometown that was burning up,” Mr. Callan said. “I had to stay. I have a home, and a business still there. I’ve got history.”Report Typo/Error