Three things stand out for me after spending a week covering the wildfires in the Fort McMurray region: The plight of the evacuees was heart-breaking. The volunteer response from surrounding communities was overwhelming. And, there was an amazing willingness of people to share their stories with us.
In the TV news business, we get used to people telling us, “no,” “no comment,” or even, “get lost.” But we didn’t hear any of that during this crisis. In fact, dozens of people approached us, unprompted, wanting to share their story. They had just been through trauma and wanted to let the rest of the world know about it. It was therapy for them to talk, cry and laugh about it.
CTV Calgary videographer Richard Blais and I were dispatched to the area as the city was being evacuated. When we arrived at Grassland near Wandering River, which is 200 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, we encountered a massive traffic jam of people trying to escape. As the road narrowed from a divided highway to one-lane traffic, people started driving southbound in the northbound lanes in an attempt to get around, to no avail. The frustration among the evacuees was obvious. But everyone we approached was willing to talk.
“We left thinking that we weren't coming back to anything,” said Todd Larson.
We encountered several people cruising Highway 63 that day with truckloads of fuel and water, offering help to people stranded on the road. Many of them shouted out to Richard and I in our CTV News vehicle, asking if we needed anything. We encountered people from all over Alberta and Saskatchewan who just hopped in their vehicles and drove long distances to help. This was a heartwarming thing to witness. And, very Canadian.
Later that day, we stopped at Wandering River. It’s the only fuel stop on Highway 63 between Fort McMurray and Grassland. Several people were in the parking lots, standing by their vehicles, offering free water, fuel, clothing, diapers, toiletries, toys and pet food. I dubbed it “Good Samaritan Alley.”
“We felt we should come help because if tables were turned they'd be helping us,” said Matt Lyons from Cold Lake.
Lauren Leippi from Fort McMurray was taking some of those supplies. “My mom, my dad, my best friends, I know tonnes of people that have lost their homes. It's devastating. I can't imagine. I hope my home's OK,” she told us.
Then, Chris Thompson called out to us from across the parking lot. “You guys want a story? Come over here!”
He showed us two miniature ponies in the back of his pickup. His wife and young daughter escaped Fort McMurray, then grabbed their horses and headed south from Anzac. They also had two dogs with them that got separated from their owner in Fort McMurray. They watched their home burn in their rear view mirror as they left.
“All we have is what's in the truck and the car. But all our animals are safe. My wife and daughter are safe, so I'm happy for that,” Thompson told us.
I was astounded by their plight, and their ability to be positive in the midst of tragedy. You just can’t make this stuff up, I told Richard, my videographer.
On May 6, evacuees who were trapped north of Fort McMurray were finally allowed through the city. The danger in Fort McMurray prevented them from leaving the area until then. Even so, they encountered flames on the side of the road, and thick smoke as they drove through the city.
Tia McKenzie approached us as she stopped for gas in Wandering River. She wanted to talk to us and share her video of her smoky drive.
“You’re scared and have fear and butterflies and your heart is pounding and you’re just completely speechless,” she said.
As evacuees headed south, a school bus full of firefighters stopped for gas as they headed north to relieve their colleagues on the front lines. One of them was Riley Cardinal, whose apartment building burned in the Slave Lake fire of 2011. Like I said, you can’t make this stuff up.
"Just happy to be here, to give a hand to these families that lost lots of things, maybe everything,” Cardinal told us, before he jumped back on the bus.
Later, at an evacuation centre on the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, we met some evacuees with more incredible stories.
I walked up to Lisa Applegarth, who was holding two tiny baby girls.
“Are you Mom?” I asked.
“No. I’m Grandma!” she replied.
She was holding 17-day-old Kaisley and Paisley. The twins were the youngest evacuees we encountered. The family had just fled the Janvier area, which was experiencing power outages and smoky air.
“I got scared. I packed up all the pictures, I didn't bother with the clothes and just took the pictures,” Applegarth said.
During our interview, Applegarth mentioned the baby girls’ father was going to fight the fires soon. I asked where he was now. She pointed across the table at 18-year-old Chad Cardinal.
“We’re going to interview you next!” I said.
Cardinal told us he was just finishing his forest firefighting course, and would soon be on the front lines for the rest of the summer. I asked how hard it would be to leave the girls behind.
"I'm going to miss them growing, more than likely,” she said. “But that's part of life. I got to make a sacrifice, right?"
In the Beaver Lake Cree Nation campground, we found a Fort McMurray family that was very grateful to the volunteers from the reserve. The First Nation supplied them with a tent, clothes and food, enough for two months. I used my intermediate French to speak to this francophone family, originally from Quebec, and they did their best to share their story in English.
Pierre L'Ecuyer, tears welling in his eyes, expressed his gratitude saying, “The Cree Nation...” and a fingertip kiss.
We also encountered many volunteers whose goodwill knew no bounds. And they were happy to let us know that evacuees could count on them. Volunteer chef Raj Chapperjee showed us the busy kitchen at the Bold Centre in Lac la Biche, which turned into an evacuee centre for thousands.
“We are here till we drop, no problem,” he said, as he and his crew served up hot meals.
The mayor of Lac La Biche County, Omer Moghrabi, was also very generous with his time. We interviewed him several times about his community’s massive volunteer effort. Hundreds mobilized in just hours. Many evacuees surrounded Moghrabi at the Bold Centre, shaking his hand, thanking him and all the people of Lac La Biche for their hospitality.
Heartwarming hospitality was also on display in Conklin. The First Nations and Metis communities joined other locals to help hundreds of evacuees staying in nearby lodges.
Steve and Karen Sturgis, forced to leave their homes in Fort Mac, then an evacuation centre in Anzac, shared such an emotional story, I teared up during the interview.
"Just being able to get a hug has meant a lot. We don't want to take what you don't need… but then we found out from the volunteers…they gave us a tongue lashing,” Karen said.
“They say, ‘No, you take it whether you need it or not. You take it because we're going to have your back throughout this whole thing,’ and that makes me feel really good."
All the stories people shared with us made me feel really good, too. To see so many people helping so many others, with no thanks necessary, was moving.
It also gives you hope that things will be alright in Fort McMurray. There’s obviously a long road ahead, as people rebuild their homes and their lives.
But as long as this spirit continues, I know Fort Mac will be back.
And, I’m thankful to be able tell a few of the stories along the way. Thanks to everyone for sharing their stories with us.
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