As a raging wildfire later referred to as ‘The Beast” bore down upon Fort McMurray, residents like Courtney Abbott hoped for the best while never imagining the worst.
The raging wildfire that has laid waste to an area larger than the Avalon Peninsula, wrecking one-tenth of Fort McMurray, destroying 2,400 structures and forcing more than 80,000 residents to flee, was first spotted 15-kilometres southwest of the city by an airborne forestry crew on May 1.
Courtney Abbott, originally from St. Bernard’s, her husband Perry, originally from Little Harbour East, and their kids Luke, who will be four later this month, and Emma who just turned one, lived on 199 J.W. Mann Drive, in the area of Wood Buffalo.
On the day everything changed, Abbott was at her office in downtown Fort McMurray while her husband stayed at home with both kids. “Lunch time, I had walked outside to go get lunch and was greeted with a clear blue sky. Twenty minutes later walking back to my building, myself and my co-workers could see a small amount of smoke which we thought was normal,” she began. Abbott and her co-workers had been listening to a news conference just an hour prior and had heard conditions would get worse after lunch. “Half an hour after getting back inside my building, I went to look out the window again and it had gotten significantly worse. I was texting my husband and he was telling me that things weren’t looking much better from our backyard. One hour after going inside I looked out the window to see the sky pretty much black with a lot of orange. My view from work was looking towards Abasand which was one of the hardest hit areas.”
bumper to bumper
Feeling uneasy, Abbott kept an eye on social media. “The evacuation notices started to come in for Beacon Hill and Abasand and then I read that the golf course in Wood Buffalo was being evacuated and my manager told me to go. I raced home as quickly as I could but there was already a traffic jam on the highway. Our home backs onto Real Martin Drive which is the only road in and out of Wood Buffalo. As I turned into the area, there was already bumper to bumper traffic leaving Wood Buffalo.”
When she finally arrived home, her husband was packing. At that point, they were on a voluntary evacuation notice and were told to be ready to go within half an hour. “We had the radio blasting in our house wherever we could so that we could pack and not miss any notices. We spent the next half an hour racing through our home. The whole time I was thinking, how do I pick what to pack? I really didn’t think the fire was going to be as destructive as it was, I thought we would leave for two or three days at the most.”
Every light was turned on in their home as the sky outside was so dark it felt like they were packing in the middle of the night, even though it was only 3:00 p.m. “Every time I would run back upstairs I would lift the blind in our bedroom to look outside, hoping to see some improvement in the conditions, but every time all I saw was the bumper to bumper traffic on the only road out of our area. We decided to pack what we could in both vehicles and we would head south to our camper at North Buck Lake, about 2.5 hours away, as that is where my sister and her family were heading and they were taking my mom with them.”
Abbott’s dad was still at work at Nexen, south of Fort McMurray, and was not in any danger at that point. Still, Abbott wished they were all together. “I remember standing in the kitchen and hearing the emergency alert blasting on the radio and I prayed it would be a test as I have only ever heard it that way in all of my life. Unfortunately it was not a test and immediately after I heard it, the area of Wood Buffalo was placed under mandatory evacuation and we grabbed our kids and dog and raced out of the house.”
Like many fleeing the area, the Abbott family were stuck in traffic trying to reach Highway 63 to get out of town. “My husband had our son with him and I had our daughter and the dog. During this time we were trying to reach other family members to see where everyone was going as well as listening to the radio trying to figure out where we could go. There were conflicting reports of the highway going south being closed and unfortunately we were turned north by RCMP when we reached the highway. We headed north and eventually ended up at Firebag Village.”
There was so much chaos, so much fear. “Prior to our arrival we had pulled over several times trying to figure out what we should do. Should we turn around and try to get through so we could go south or continue on and hope we could find a camp that had room for us? At one point we pulled over and Luke asked me what was wrong and then told me he was hungry. Luckily I had snacks in the backseat of my car.
“I felt so helpless, I just wanted someone to tell us what we should do and that everything was going to be okay. I was so scared for my kids. We lost the radio before we reached Firebag, they had evacuated the downtown location but moved to the RCMP detachment in Timberlea, and I started to cry when they came back on the air. They were the one accurate source of information we relied on, and when they went off the air for the second time it felt like the ground was being pulled out from under me.”
Limited Supply of Gas
With a limited supply of gas, Abbott knew they had to make a decision and stick to it. They arrived at Firebag six hours after leaving their home.
Once settled, Abbott checked Facebook for updates. “I came across a video that had been posted two hours prior of a man riding a bicycle down Real Martin Drive, the street behind our home. All I could see were lots of flames and lots of smoke, I couldn’t see our house in the video. I showed Perry and we just looked at each other and thought for sure our house and the rest of the street was already gone. It was then that he told me he was receiving alarm notifications while stuck in traffic but didn’t have the nerve to check them. All we could find out was that we had lost power at 6:58 p.m.”
Gas Station Blown Up
Abbott says they tried hard to stay calm because of the kids, but it was very hard to hold the emotions inside when they thought their home had burned to the ground. “I took Luke to get some food and then Perry was lucky enough to have his brother contact someone who was able to fuel up both of our vehicles. All we wanted to do was go south, there was only one way to drive out of Firebag and we still couldn’t figure out for sure if the highway was open. We finally got the kids to sleep and we continued scouring social media as we had been the entire evening and messaging friends and family to see where they were. My sister and her family and my mom had already arrived at North Buck Lake where they had their cabin and camper. They drove through flames on Beacon Hill and drove past the Flying J gas station just minutes after it had blown up. I felt like someone was telling me about a bad movie they had seen.”
Trapped and Nervous
Starting to feel trapped and nervous, the family hit the road again hours later. “Weather conditions were going to be the same as that day and we were scared the highway would be impassable if the winds picked up again. Perry found someone to give us a ride to our vehicles and we nervously went on our way. We could smell smoke when we walked outside the camp. We passed a lot of cars abandoned on the highway prior to reaching town. The smoke got worse at Suncor, just 30km north of town. It was very difficult to see and I had to turn off the vents in my car because the smoke was making my throat sore, although there was so much smoke it quickly filled my car.”
Reaching town again left her with a very eerie feeling, she says. “Fort McMurray is a town that works 24 hours a day and that night it was like a ghost town with the exception of a few people like us who just wanted to get out. There were also lots of emergency vehicles around. Crossing the bridge the hill on the right was glowing, which was part of Abasand. To the left, the downtown core was still lit up like nothing had happened. Driving up Beacon Hill everything was total darkness.”
“Once we reached the top, what was left of the Super 8 was still burning as well as the Centennial Trailer Park. I was so relieved when we made it to the other side of town. There were many vehicles and campers on the side of the road, some abandoned and some with people sleeping in them. We reached Wandering River 200km south of Fort McMurray and the lineup of cars waiting for fuel was unreal. There were already strangers arriving with fuel and water to help everyone out.”
They reached their camper about six hours after leaving Fort McMurray, a drive that normally takes 2.5 hours. “When I finally got out of my vehicle and knew that we were all safe, that was the first time I let myself really cry.”