Sally Hamelin is a former employee of South Peace News living in Fort McMurray when the wildfires occurred. Following is her account.
On May 3 my day began with a blue sky and bright sun. Up and gone to work at 7 a.m., all seemed well with the world.
There was a small fire across the river but it was being contained. In a matter of hours our world would turn into a nightmare beyond any apocalyptic movie you have ever seen!
At noon clouds of smoke and flames could be seen behind the Thickwood, Abasand and Beaconhill areas. As I drove back to work after my lunch break I could see smoke and red flames on the residential side of the river. The fire had jumped across and was heading straight for Thickwood where I live.
In a matter of half an hour we were sent home from work. At our street the smoke and flames could be seen above the rooftops and tree lines heading our way…fast!
At 3 p.m. a mandatory evacuation notice was broadcast and our whole city was being told to leave…immediately! What followed was a horrific nightmare I will never forget, or want to.
When we left our area to get onto the main access road to leave the traffic was grid-locked. The fire was roaring beside us. You could feel the heat around your vehicle. People were looking at each other in shock and fear! We were evacuated north away from the city toward the camps. After driving for four hours in bumper to bumper traffic we reached the community of Fort McKay where we were told the camps were filled and should turn around and go back south and just keep driving. Some of us were running out of gas and had to abandon our vehicles on the highway and jump in with other vehicles behind us.
The drive back through our city was like driving through a dream. Fire was burning everywhere you looked. The smoke was black and choking, ash was falling and covering everything. We covered our faces with T-shirts and just drove through. My sister stared straight ahead and told me and mom not to look out the side windows but how could you not? Everything was burning! The flames were higher than our truck…all around us!
I couldn’t even determine what part of the city we were passing because everything was burning. There was a line of vehicles slowly inching along trying to get out onto Highway 63. I saw people riding bikes, vehicles in the ditches, people standing shell-shocked on the shoulders of the road. People were riding horses in the middle of the highway. The air was heavy with smoke and panic. We reached Anzac at 1:30 a.m.
It took seven hours to escape. We were exhausted and looked and felt like zombies. We have family in the community, so we dropped off our mom at an aunt’s house then headed for the Evacuation Centre to search for one of our sisters. She had disappeared in downtown Fort McMurray after being evacuated from her work place. She wasn’t answering her phone. We lost contact with her throughout the afternoon and evening. She doesn’t drive and had no way to get out of the city.
We found her sitting on the cement floor of the arena holding her purse to her chest, looking around with huge eyes! She was still wearing her chef jacket from work. When she saw us she broke down. We hung onto each other with a super tight hug like no other we have ever given.
We thought, “OK, we are safe here now, we can rest and it will be better tomorrow.”
Wrong! By 3 p.m. the next afternoon, May 4, the fire had reached the north side of Anzac. We were evacuated again!
I threw my brother’s old dog in the back of a friend’s truck, grabbed my sister and away we went. We never stopped driving until we got to the Lac La Biche Evac Centre that night. We walked in there like robots. The Red Cross took us and led us through the process of registering, gave us blankets and a cot and food.
We did not sleep that night! It felt like we were picked up and thrown by force out of our world into an unknown oblivion – a scary, strange place. Our family was scattered all over the province. Some made it to Edmonton, Calgary, Westlock, Fort Saskatchewan, Lac La Biche, Athabasca, but everyone was safe, animals included!
Myself and two of my sisters made it here to High Prairie on Thursday, May 5. We went to our parent’s place. Still in shock, doubting that we really went through this horrific experience that our homes were on fire, our city burned down. I was afraid for the firefighters and first responders left behind there. How the hell were they going to battle that beast? It was a monster!
But they did, and they saved 90 per cent of our homes and city. Now what kind of heroes are they? The kind you want at your back for certain.
As I sit here now reflecting and writing this there is so much I can say but will only say this: “If you were not a humble kind of person before this fire then you sure are now.”
All the kindness and help, the hugs and love from strangers, all along the way down this path has been just as overwhelming as the fire. There are no words to thank all these people. The town of High Prairie has been unbelievable. The quick response to our dilemma when we got here was instant and solid.
My family wants to thank with our hearts these beautiful people: Angie Halverson and her tribe of warrior women, who collected enough clothes to cover our whole family – adults and kids; the lady whose husband works at Syncrude and told his wife to go buy those women all the toiletries and feminine things they need; FCSS for gathering all the gift cards for us to use for what we needed from local businesses including Super A, Fields, Bargain Shop, Northern Lights, Boondocks and the food bank.
On a personal level I want to express my heartfelt thanks to Rob at Big Lakes Dodge for his quick and generous response to checking my car out and making sure it survived the fire. And thank you, thank you to Burcat Welding for coming out on Highway 63 with fuel, water, snacks to give to the evacuees trying to escape. Burcat was out there doing repeated trips for days. Now that’s a hero!
I thank the girls at the library for allowing me to use the computers to check my emails everyday.
I thank Makayla at Boondocks for her sweet smile and her sweet chocolate treats. She sothered my chocolate addiction with goodness!
We thank our mom and dad, Augustine and Ed Armit, for giving us a safe place to rest and regroup so we are stronger when we make our way home.
I will be going home eventually. I will help in any way I can to rebuild our city, but I will never ever take for granted the kindness and the generosity of my fellow Albertans. I am proud to be one, more so now than ever in my life.