By John Bayko and Patrick Brooks
When the Fort McMurray wildfire prompted the Alberta Provincial Government to declare a state of emergency for that area, Mike Power realized a very difficult situation was brewing for the city’s 88,000 residents who were now evacuees. Through media sources, Mike was hearing that carloads of people were running out of fuel, leaving their vehicles on the side of the road, “…and basically crawling into someone else’s vehicle and continuing on,” he said. Getting fuel to those in need is exactly what Mike’s employer does, so his company was motivated to haul a couple of fuel tankers from their base in Edmonton up to the affected area and begin offering free gas to motorists leaving the city.
Around this same time, Frank Massner, who’s been operating an oilfield supply company out of Red Deer for six years, was also keen to help with the cause. His social media feed was bombarded with messages of confusion about where people could donate goods. “One of the things that came to light,” says Frank, “was that there were a lot of companies…large and small, wanting to donate and there was nothing being coordinated to assist them.”
Back in Edmonton, Mike decided to visit Fort Mac himself and didn’t realize the magnitude of how bad the situation was until he saw hundreds of abandoned vehicles all over the place — some of them not more than 30 seconds out of town! If his company’s fuel tankers could have been there sooner at the height of the chaos during the initial evacuation, they could have helped even more people, but as it was, the trucks were kept busy offering up gasoline to vehicles stranded along Highway 63 on the south side of Fort Mac.
Frank Massner was determined to make the donation process in his area much more efficient because after four hours of phoning around trying to get clarification on a drop off point, social media was indicating that goods were piling up and not getting to where they needed to be. After several discussions with the provincial government’s assistance line, he managed to get pegged as an “approved drop location” and inquiring donors were now being directed to him. They also went wide with social media and really pushed the need for clothing, diapers, water, non-perishable food items, dog food, and other basics. With the help of a customer of his, a 40-foot moving van was used to haul the donated goods up to Fort Mac. This centralized operation ended up being a much better solution.
Assisting stranded motorists on the south side of Fort Mac was relatively straightforward since the fuel trucks preceded road blocks entering the city. As Mike was hearing, there were evacuees on the north side who needed help as well, but getting trucks escorted through the disaster zone proved challenging because only emergency vehicles were given clearance to enter the city. Although there were flames on each side of the main road through town, they were not lapping at the pavement so some vehicles were able to get through. Eventually, the seven or eight tankers of fuel were cleared to proceed because their payload was deemed to be an essential service for the north side evacuation effort.
Word quickly spread that Frank and his business associates were mobilizing the transport of donated goods in the Red Deer area, and their team added a second 40-foot moving van to their fleet of delivery vehicles. Frank’s goal of streamlining the donation and delivery process was working. Instead of a hundred small trucks making a trip to Fort Mac, they managed to consolidate most donations down to a couple of large trucks. The team even got a call from the fire station in Camrose asking if they can swing by their station and pick up donated supplies. Once the moving trucks arrived in Fort Mac, they were met by the RCMP who escorted them to drop zones where the goods were needed.
In addition to fuel trucks, Mike also had access to his company’s permanent tank farms that are scattered throughout the oilsands area, so the approval was given to cork a few sites to add to the fuel reserves available and take pressure off the fuel trucks themselves which were servicing hundreds of vehicles at that point. Social media was an advantage here, too. A Facebook post would go out with details on a fueling location and before the card-lock was even fired up with a generator, there was a line-up of 50 vehicles waiting patiently. They even set up a self-serve station that motorists could access if they absolutely needed fuel. “Go ahead and get it,” was sent out on social media.
According to Frank, the donation of clothing has been a problem. The disaster relief organization would only accept new or dryclean-certified clothing, so Frank received a call from a local drycleaning outfit saying that the cost of drycleaning for donated clothing would be covered by another local service company who wanted to contribute to the effort.
On the day he left Fort Mac, Mike drove past one abandoned vehicle after another. Some were within city limits. Some were quite a distance from other structures. But they would have been abandoned while those red-hot embers were flying. He recalls: “As you drive by them, your mind is somewhat conceptualizing the events that would have been going on and how that resulted in an abandoned vehicle. Even motorbikes…imagine being on a motorcycle during that evacuation!”
Frank realizes that the need for donations will be on-going, especially now that other parts of northern Alberta are being threatened by wildfire. He’s committed to a long relief effort and is prepared to help people re-enter Fort Mac to get their lives back on track. People have already expressed an interest in donating furniture to displaced families so when families are able to return home, he’ll continue to provide assistance whenever it’s needed.
“I still can’t believe everyone was able to get out of there safely,” says Rachel Atkinson, a Fort McMurray resident who, with many other residents, made her way to Edmonton on May 3, 2016 amidst the wildfire. Her husband Kerry and their son Jordan had time to collect a few of their things from home and join the traffic gridlock south, arriving in Edmonton at 5:00 a.m. the next day. Rachel had to leave her car at work and didn’t even get a chance to go home. “I still can’t believe more people didn’t get hurt,” she says again.
While the fire had been burning outside of town for a few days prior to the evacuation, the Atkinsons were still in day-to-day activity mode. All three were at work, and Kerry was even looking to book a tee time at the local golf course that afternoon. Their other son Josh, was still at school in Alaska and not scheduled to be home until the following week. “I called the golf course and asked if they were still open, and they said yes we have some times,” recalls Kerry. At Rachel’s office, the day proceeded normally throughout the morning, but during the afternoon people were gradually leaving and it had become apparent there would be an evacuation. Kerry and Jordan went home at 4:00 p.m., packed up, and began making their way back to Kerry’s shop yard. It was at that point they realized the situation had escalated dramatically. “It took us two and a half hours to get back to the shop, which is normally a 10 minute drive,” Kerry notes.
In a short period of time, as news of the evacuation spread, the town’s streets became gridlock while the fire began showing itself in closer quarters. Thick plumes of smoke, followed by glowing yellow and orange flames could be seen through the trees in wooded areas right in town. Traffic was moving south in both north and south lanes, and the mood was shifting towards frantic. “There were people driving cars down bike paths,” recalls Rachel. “I looked up toward Beacon Hill and the traffic was moving so slowly coming down the hill.” The smoke was getting thicker and people seemed to be scrambling to get through the slow moving traffic however they could—cutting through meridians, driving on the wrong side of the street, and driving on sidewalks. “A woman I know was driving down from (the community of) Abasand (Heights) and couldn’t see anything. She didn’t know where she was, so she stopped her car, got out, and started running. She said the heat and the smoke from the fire was so intense she could feel it and she was panicking,” Rachel explains.
After waiting at Kerry’s shop until 8:00 p.m., the Atkinsons heard the highway south had re-opened, so they left with six other vehicles toward Edmonton. People were flooding grocery stores and buying supplies and fuel. Information was coming from several different sources, and depending on who you heard, the stories varied. It was said that certain gas stations were out of gas for example, but as Kerry says, “we pulled in to one gas station that was supposedly empty, and filled up. There were only two other cars there.” Fortunately, for the Atkinsons, they had much of what they needed for supplies, as well as a place to go. As they inched along in gridlock and out of town, they could see several vehicles parked on the sides of the roads waiting to return to town. At that point, they thought perhaps they would be able to return after the weekend…
After a week in Edmonton, the mood is somber. Rachel, Kerry, Jordan, and Josh who has arrived back from school, are well and taking the time to help out others. They have registered with the Red Cross and made arrangements with their insurance companies. “The evacuation centre at Northlands had everything set up,” says Kerry. “They had people dropping off supplies by the truck load and all the insurance companies were there. They could look up your address and tell you if your house was in an affected area.” The pavilion at Northlands was divided up, and several staff were on-hand to provide direction. In a main area, a registration table was flanked by tables with information on acquiring food, lodging, clothing, and personal services. A “grab and go” station had snacks and toiletries available for those looking to top up on a few supplies. So far volunteers and donations have been overwhelming, and in the near-term Canadians from all over have pitched in to help in the aftermath.
Currently staying at a hotel, the Atkinsons are one of the lucky families who have not lost their home and who have options and the means to wait it out for the foreseeable future. But after spending a few days driving their friends around town and helping them get sorted out, and finalizing immediate loose ends, the questions of what happens next begin to surface. With no set timeline for returning home and returning to work, many evacuees are left in a strange limbo. “Our company had to deal with the floods in Calgary,” Rachel points out, “so they were very organized. They let us know how long we would be getting paid and when we should be applying for (employment insurance).” Other companies, however, are not as well prepared for such a dramatic event, and so many in Fort McMurray are left not only wondering about their homes and when they may get to return to them, but also about their job prospects when they get back.