Indefinitely Wild

“Everything Is Going to Go Up in Flames": On the Ground in Fort McMurray

A firsthand account from northern Alberta’s devastating wildfire

Smoke fills the air as a small plane flies overhead in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. The entire population of the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray, has been ordered to evacuate as a wildfire whipped by winds engulfed homes and sent ash raining down on residents. (Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press via AP)
Photo: Kitty Cochrane/The Canadian Press via AP

“As I was leaving, they were dousing the fire station with water so it wouldn’t go up in flames,” describes Jason Lainese of the scene in Fort McMurray last night. 

Jason’s a friend of mine who just moved back to northern Alberta after spending the winter in Los Angeles, where I live. When I saw on the news that all 80,000 residents of the city were being evacuated due to a massive wildfire burning its way through town, I called him to check in. He described the situation there for me firsthand. 

Located a seven-and-a-half hour drive north of Edmonton, Fort McMurray grew from just a few thousand residents in the 1960s, to a city of 80,000 today, largely due to a boom in oil exploitation in the area. You’ve heard of Canada’s infamous, environmentally devastating oil sands. They’re just north of town. And now Fort McMurray is being ravaged by a massive wildfire. One made worse by unseasonably warm and dry conditions. “Today, it will be warmer here than in LA,” says Jason. The forecast calls for 90 degree temperatures and a relative humidity of just 13 percent. That’s not just extremely hot for northern Canada, it’s the warmest temperature recorded for the region for this time of year in 119 years. 

Initially, Jason didn’t plan to evacuate, despite the mandatory order to do so. “When I woke up yesterday morning, there was not much smoke,” he says. “It looked like everything was under control, and then about 1:30, or 2:00 p.m., the winds just shifted, and everything in an instant went up in flames. Houses got burned, there was no warning, there was just a massive shift like instantaneously. Where I was, it just got more and more smoky, and ash was falling everywhere.”

So, late last night, when the fires had subsided a bit, Jason threw his most important possessions in his car, and hit the road. “I took what I could, there’s only so many things that you can fit in a car,” he explains. “I took my computer, with all my pictures on it, some clothing, some food, some basic provisions. But the major stuff had to stay at the house. My motorcycle is there, all my tools and work stuff is there.” 

Jason’s a heavy equipment mechanic, servicing vehicles used on the oil sands north of town. He doesn’t know if his house is still there, or if it will be there tomorrow. If he goes back after this to find the tools he needs to do his job are gone, he’ll have a hard time finding work. 

“The sad part for this town is that it already got hit because of the downturn in oil prices,” Jason continues. “So it took a really big hit, and a lot of people have already left. And now this fire is just decimating the the livelihoods and houses that are left. Some sections of town are just gone.”

Don’t forget that this wildfire is not the first disaster to beset Fort McMurray in recent years. In 2013, parts of the town were evacuated due to heavy rainfall, and subsequently destroyed by flooding. Jason tells us that those same neighborhoods have now been destroyed, again, by the fire.

“Right now, I’m at the lake,” Jason tells us. He’s set up camp, at a campground south of the city. And he’s stuck there until the government brings in more gasoline. Ironically, for a place so intrinsically linked to oil production, the city and surrounding areas have run out of gas. “There’s a lot of people just stuck by the side of the road,” Jason tells us. “There’s a truck stop just outside of town, just a weight scale, and there’s people stopped there. There’s a motocross track, and people are there too.”

Fortunately, surrounding communities are opening their doors to evacuees. “People are opening up community centers you can use,” Jason describes. “As you go towards Edmonton, there’s different camps along the way that are opening up. All of the oil sites also have work camps, and there’s people that went there, too.”

“Everybody is worried, but everybody is coming together,” says Jason. “There’s a lot of people offering help, and everybody seems in the most part to be pretty calm. I think my friends and family were more worried about me that I was.”

“As I was driving out of town last night, all the brush on the side of the highway was burnt,” Jason describes perfect conditions for a wildfire, with dry brush and trees surrounding the town. For a time yesterday, the highway south from Fort Mcmurray was closed as the fire passed over it. “Everything is going to go up in flames,” he tells us. 

The fire is expected to worsen today, as a cold front moves through the region, bringing wind gusts forecast to reach 30 mph, fanning the flames. It's possible the whole city could be lost. “Right now they’re bringing in the army, and hopefully they can keep the fire at bay,” Jason continues. “They’re going to have a lot of equipment to use, because all of the oil sites, they have brand new fire trucks, state of the art stuff that they’re leaving to the disposal of the city. All of the sites have their own fire crews too, so hopefully they’re going to be out helping too.” 

When he’s able to get his hands on some gas, Jason says he’ll head to either Edmonton, to stay with friends, or maybe even go as far as Calgary. “I’m alive, my family is safe,” Jason concludes. “These things, in the end, they show what you’re made of.” 

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