We Are Not Fine. We Are Not Prepared: Escaping Fort McMurray

By Mathew Clements May 4, 2016

I don’t know if you’re religious or not, but if you believe in some version of hell my family just drove through it. A few hours ago my family and I escaped the city of Fort McMurray, Alberta which as you may have seen on the news is burning.

We drove through the fire, avoiding dangling electrical wires. We are alive, we have found shelter for tonight in a motel. But like so many others we were unprepared to evacuate when we were told we needed to.

I am going to ask you to do what my family did not do, but wish we did: have an emergency kit ready.

Forest fires are not uncommon in Northern Alberta. Each year many fires occur in the vast Boreal forest that covers the Northern Region of the province, but most of them stay contained, or burn a safe distance from inhabited communities.

Living in Fort McMurray for the past three years (past two years for my wife Amanda and son Odin) we have been witness to these yearly events. Each time, my wife and I will say to each other “We should really think about having an Emergency Preparedness Kit”. We talk about it. We say what a good and practical idea it is. Then, like so many others, it gets put to the wayside and forgotten. We’ll get to it, we say, just like how we’ll get to all the other things in life we say we’ll get to eventually.

Today that forgetfulness put us in danger.

This week my attention was focused anywhere but the reports of wild fires in Northern Alberta. My family was moving to a new house within the city and I was focused on unpacking and getting my son settled back into school. On Monday we heard that voluntary evacuations had started for areas of Fort McMurray in the south end of town.

We’re safe up in Timberlea. The ominous thick clouds could be seen over the water across the Athabasca River. We were fine. No immediate danger.

Monday evening the winds died down and the fire seemed to be moving away from the city. We were fine. No immediate danger.

Tuesday morning, the smoke was not as thick. We sent Odin off to school, I was enjoying my day off and Amanda went to do the grocery shopping before she went to work. We were fine. No immediate danger.

Around 1pm, things drastically started to change. I was outside when I could feel the relentless winds change direction. I could see the smoke shift up from the south, moving the fire along the dry brush directly into the path of Fort McMurray and my family. My stomach sank, my son, my wife, we had to go now or we would go never.

We were not fine. We were in danger.

Looking back on it now, it feels like that metaphor of the frog in the slowly boiling pot of water. We were so focused on getting settled in our new home, preparing for a catastrophe wasn’t on our minds. Brush fires happen, there’s no need to panic, we’re fine. We were fine until we weren’t.

I immediately started packing, but had no idea what to pack. What would we need, how long would we be gone, where would we go?

Clothes? Yes, we need clothes, but how much? Two days? Three days? Five days? Passports! Where are the passports? Money. We definitely need money. Prescriptions, does anybody need any of those? What about the cats? How much food? FOOD! We need to bring food. I called my wife Amanda and told her to come home immediately and that we had to pick up our son, Odin, from school. Odin’s stuff! I need to make sure to pack his favorite books and things! I frantically went about the house trying to think of all of the necessary things we would need to get out with. My mind raced as I made sure to leave nothing important behind.

If we’d had a kit or a list or had a plan I would know what to do and what to bring, but it was too late for that now.

When my family arrived home I was waiting at the front door. By this time, more neighbourhoods were on voluntary evacuation, including one in the north end, where we are located.

We are not fine. We are in danger.

The winds had shifted so fast, there wasn’t time for authorities to properly communicate the urgency of the situation to many in the city, despite their best efforts. We are not being told to evacuate. My gut is telling me we need to go, but I don’t want to be part of a panic, a rush to get out of town that winds up costing lives.

Should we go? Should we wait? What should we do?

As we listened to the radio and watched the plumes of thick smoke that were beginning to envelope the sky, the urge to get my family as far away as possible was stronger than ever.

We are not fine. We are in danger.

This radio station says to go North. That radio station says to go South. Family says to go North. Friends say to go South.

As we are trying to decide, the radio announces that all of Fort McMurray is under evacuation. Go time.

We are not fine. We are in real danger.

Traffic is crawling at a snails pace as we attempt to leave. By chance, we had a full tank of gas. Not because we were prepared, only by dumb luck. As we approached Highway 63 we had to decide to go North towards the mines, or South towards Edmonton and the fire.

We chose South.

What we came upon next felt like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Thick black smoke, fires on the side of the road, traffic and panicked people everywhere. It felt as if we were driving through hell itself.

All my wife and I could say was, “We should have been more prepared”.

We should have had a bag for each of us, ready to go. We had clothes, and some food, and some money, but was it the right stuff? What about a first aid kit? What about water purification? What about personal documents? What about medication? We were not prepared.

We made it out.

We are now fine. We are no longer in danger.

The hard truth of it is that we were very lucky. We got out with some things, but had we been better prepared we wouldn’t have been so caught off guard. Emergency officials did everything possible to get us out in time. They saved our lives.  The winds shifted so fast, it was a worst case scenario. We escaped but seconds mattered and the time it took us to prepare and to make the decision to go could have cost us our lives. Please learn from my family’s ordeal, luck was on our side this time, but it may not be on ours (or yours) the next time.


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