IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT WHILE SOME JASPERITES FLED THE FORT MCMURRAY WILDFIRE WITH THEIR FAMILIES, OTHERS WENT NORTH TO HELP
On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 3, Alex Derksen and his wife Emily were sitting on their deck in the suburb of Timberlea, in the north end of Fort McMurray. They knew a forest fire was burning close to town but because they hadn’t seen any special alerts on the news or on social media, they didn’t feel the fire was threatening.
“That morning I went to the gym and bought groceries,” Derksen said. “We honestly thought there was no reason to worry.” Then, at 2 p.m., they noticed ash starting to rain down on their home. Just to be on the safe side, they agreed Alex should go get the kids from school.
“Driving down to get the kids I could see there was a little bit of panic on the streets,” he said. “The first gas station I passed had 40 cars lined up.”
When he pulled up to the school, a seven minute drive from his home, Derksen saw other parents were agitated.
“Parents were sprinting in the front doors. When I got to the kids’ class, half the class had been picked up.”
As he drove back to his home with his children, Derksen spotted another 20 cars jostling in line at the gas pumps. He was thankful that he had filled up his own tank the night before.
“I gassed up the night before, just in case,” he said.
Sensing the heightening state of alarm in their neighbourhood, the Derksens decided to move out. They could spend the night at his brother’s house, in Sherwood Park, they figured, and by hitting the road sooner than later they could get ahead of the crowds. Still, they had no idea of the seriousness of the wildfire. A temperature inversion had pushed the smoke close to the ground that morning, giving Timberlea residents, including the Derksens, a false sense of security. As they exited their community and made their way onto the road leading south out of the city, the severity of the situation quickly became apparent. “There were flames on the side of the road,” Derksen said. “It was like a scene from Armageddon.” As they continued down the highway, they began to get a picture of the critical situation. The suburb of Beacon Hill was on fire; they were driving through a hallway of flames; and the road was in gridlock. “There was nowhere to go,” Derksen said. “We were stuck.” Exiting the city by the south highway normally takes 20 minutes; however, the huge traffic snarl on May 3 made the drive an excruciating, terrifying two hours. Derksen alerted his staff at the Wood Buffalo Brewpub—who were preparing food for firefighters and other first responders—and told them that they too, should evacuate.
“It went from zero to 100 in five minutes,” he said. “The fire was coming over every hill.” As they crawled along on the road, they spotted stranded vehicles. “At first we were wondering what they were doing pulled over,” he said. “Then we realized that they ran out of gas.” Fuel was indeed a precious commodity during the emergency, and not just for evacuees. More than 1,100 first responders were in need of gasoline and diesel as they beat back the flames and created fire guards to protect as much of the city as they could. Unfortunately, the city’s fuel stations were tapped out.
JASPER'S DAVE CAMERON JOINED A GROUP OF DIESEL ENTHUSIASTS WHO SHARE INFORMATION UNDER THE FACEBOOK GROUP WESTERN CANADIAN POWERSTROKES. WCP BROUGHT MORE THAN 10,000 LITRES OF FUEL TO FT. MCMURRAY FIRST RESPONDERS AND EVACUEES. // BOB COVEY
Responding to that need was an unlikely group of heroes. A group of Ford truck enthusiasts who share information and promote community-building through a Facebook group called Western Canadian Powerstrokes (WCP) were monitoring the situation in Fort McMurray and decided they could help. When Jasper’s Dave Cameron, a member of the group, saw that WCP was getting organized to bring fuel and other supplies to Fort McMurray, he jumped in his truck to assist. Meeting members of the group in Fort Saskatchewan on the night of May 3, Cameron joined a convoy of vehicles carrying more than 10,000 litres of fuel. The group drove through the night to Fort McMurray and were ushered through the RCMP road blocks. At at one point, however, they had to wait for the fire to burn out after it leapt over the road. “Here we are hauling these huge bombs and we’re driving into hell,” he said. “It was pretty gnarly.” When they were finally able to get through safely, the group was sent to the emergency response base at MacDonald Island, Fort Mac’s massive recreational and community complex. There, their cargo was seized upon by grateful initial attack members. Fire engines, support trucks, bull dozers, police cruisers and any other vehicle that needed fuel was resupplied.
“They were happy to see us,” Cameron said. At 10 a.m. on May 4, after everyone had gassed up, WCP started helping in a different way. They had already helped shuttle food, water and baby supplies to emergency shelters outside of the city. Now, via Facebook, they asked if any Fort McMurray evacuees needed their pets rescued. The calls flooded in. “We had 300 inquires within half and hour,” Cameron said. Although they had little time before RCMP shut down access to the communities in which evacuees’ pets were located, Cameron and other WCP members were able to rescue several dogs and cats. In instances where houses were locked, homeowners asked the volunteers to break down their doors. “At one house there was a chocolate lab inside. I’ve never seen a dog so happy,” Cameron laughed. WCP members weren’t done yet. As they left the city, they stopped at every stranded car that still had a driver inside. “Everybody was just pumped,” Cameron said. “Whenever there was a vehicle we’d stop and ask ‘do you need gas?’”
Tanya Broadfoot, another Jasper resident who wanted to pitch in, said her experience volunteering in Fort McMurray was eye-opening. On her 40th birthday, Broadfoot and her best friend, who has been working out of Fort McMurray for nine years, decided the best gift would be to help others. They hitched up a U-Haul trailer, wrote Fort Mac or Bust on their truck and started collecting clothes, diapers, toiletries, bedding and more. Loading up donations from Edmonton, they brought supplies to evacuation centres in Boyle, Wandering River, Lac La Biche, Conklin and Marianna Lake.
“It was an amazingly humbling experience,” Broadfoot said.
Lindsey Connolly was also humbled by the outpouring of support she saw for Fort McMurray. The city of 90,000 residents has changed a lot since she grew up there, she said, but what hasn’t changed, despite the population boom, is the strong sense of community. In fact, as far as she can tell, the fire has only increased civic pride.
“There’s history, there’s family and a super strong community,” she said. “The fire is really sad to see—some of my friends and cousins lost their homes—but people are coming together. It’s been unbelievable.”
People are coming together in Jasper, too. While the Derksens wait to find out the status of their Fort McMurray neighbourhood, they are joining in on the fundraising for the Red Cross’ Fort McMurray relief fund. On May 7, the Derksens helped their son Dustin organize a lemonade stand which brought in more than $5,300. Karouzos Steakhouse raised more than $1,000. Patricia Lake Bungalows, Alpine Village, the Downstream, Caribou Cabs, Jasper Pizza Place, the Jasper Brewpub, Jasper Park Liquor, Blue Sky Yoga and many others have pledged their support. On May 19, Maligne Canyon Restaurant will host a fundraiser dinner where Jasper Fire Chief Greg Van Tighem will speak about emergency preparedness. It’s certainly the topic of the hour. Because as the Derksens and 85,000 other evacuees learned, disasters such as wildfires don’t give you much warning. “It caught us all off guard,” Alex said. “A lot of people could have died.”