With spring this year comes warm, dry weather. Hot winds from the south added to the heat of the sun are a recipe for disaster when it comes to fire.
Northern Alberta has been in the throes of mass evacuations due to wildfires that had burned through roughly 1600 structures at Fort McMurray by May 3. Two days later, more than 90,000 people had been evacuated from a total population of 125,000 (Census 2015). One of those was former Margo resident Robin Bohl, who now lives and works in Fort McMurray.
Bohl saw the devastation firsthand. He was at work on the oil patch when he learned of the fire coming from the south that eventually destroyed Fort McMurray’s Beacon Hill neighbourhood by jumping the Hanging Stone Creek, blocking evacuation access to the south and forcing people to flee north.
Bohl who lives on the north end in Thickwood, was at work when his neighbourhood was evacuated, leaving him with “the clothes on my back,” he said, “and my work bag.”
He hitched a ride from work, was dropped off and made his way to the police station for information. Little was forthcoming and he got the impression that he was on his own. At that time, he says, “It was an apocalyptic scene from the movies; total chaos.”
Not able to go home and with no real direction or transportation, he picked up cellphone cards and supplies and then headed for the river. Amongst the pandemonium, he thought if the fire came to the east he could always jump into the river.
Two kilometres from the river, he managed to hitch a ride with a woman and her child. Together they made a plan to head north to Fort McKay First Nation, as they only had half a tank of gas.
Bohl says, “Once there, we were welcomed with open arms by the First Nation, who gave us food and shelter for the night, in such a beautiful setting it seemed eerie to have come from an apocalyptic scene to tranquility.”
Bohl attributes his successful fire avoidance and eventual departure to the RM of Buffalo’s personnel, who kept up a barrage of social media tweets giving out firm facts and advice.
“How they did it through all that confusion, I don’t know, but it was incredible for the info they gave.”
The highway south became blocked again as officials closed it due to 70 km/h winds and temperatures of 32C, which it was feared might cause the fire to jump again.
“I had to formulate a plan to get out” says Bohl, who eventually flew out from Shell Albion, a camp that could hold 7000 people and had an airstrip along with the amenities to evacuate people. It had evacuated 3500 people the previous day and had 34 flights planned for that day.
Bohl managed to secure a seat on a flight to Calgary, where some of his family members live. He is now taking a day or two off, then hopes to get back to work and his house.
Natural Resources Canada released fire danger risks for May 5 indicating that 90% of Alberta and Saskatchewan was at the extreme level of fire risk due to the dry warm conditions.
By Andy Labdon