Leaving Fort McMurray: Stories from evacuees

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Fort McMurray

Tens of thousands of people have fled the wildfire that has ravaged parts of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Here are some of their stories:

Dustin Shillolo, 29, linked up with a group of friends and rode out of town in a truck.

“We were stuck on the highway and we could see the flames of the forest fire coming toward us. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, here we are in a back of a truck going nowhere fast.'”

Shillolo said he saw terrified people trying to bike away from the scene. He said his group made it about 10 kilometres south of town before running out of gas.

On Wednesday morning, he was stuck at a staging area waiting to refuel. He said the highway nearby had all four lanes going southbound.

“I must have stayed up till 3, 4 o’clock in the morning last night just standing there watching the headlights, and it didn’t stop. For hours, it didn’t stop.”

Shillolo said he has been amazed by the generosity of the community.

“We’ve got people coming up to us saying they’re getting a can of gas for us, . . . and they’re bringing four or five extra cans just for anybody who needs it. And they’re buying food, and they’re getting kitty litter for people who have cats, they’re getting dog food. They’re driving up the highway, and anybody they see they’re going to stop and give some to.”

Shillolo, a laborer living in Fort McMurray, said he believes his home is safe at the moment, but he recognizes that could change at any moment.

“If there’s something to go back to, I’ll go back. I have enough stuff on me that if I didn’t want to go back I guess I wouldn’t have to, but I probably would.”

Hunter Lawrence-Carr, 18, is a high school student from Fort McMurray. When he was in school, he saw students starting to get texts from concerned parents telling them to get moving.

“By the time class ended they’re trying to settle everyone down in school and stuff, and I just said I had to go home and had to get my dogs ready, get everything packed up, get ready for my parents to come home and get ready to leave.

“We didn’t realize how serious it was until we went out to the parking lot and the sky was orange. You could feel the heat radiating just from the smoke alone. It’s still surreal just trying to think about it.”

Lawrence-Carr didn’t wind up leaving until 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night and said it took a couple of hours to make it out of the city limits. He left the city with his mom and three dogs. He could see flames in the rearview mirror as they drove out of town.

He was en route to Edmonton on Wednesday morning when he talked to The Canadian Press. His stepfather is a supervisor at the municipal wastewater plant, which is deemed an essential service, so he was still in town.

He has been in touch with his close friends and they’re safe.

“My main concern, a worry to me was maybe if the fire was to head north towards the camps where they put everyone. I guess you can never tell that stuff, but it’s just a worry in the back of my mind that creeped in I guess as you think about all these different scenarios and stuff.”

Chris Evangelista, 30, is a pastor in Fort McMurray who is originally from Toronto. He said it was a beautiful day Tuesday when he woke up and thought the fire was well under control, but later things changed.

“Literally just in … (the) hour that I was at lunch, things deteriorated really crazily. When I walked out of the building there was a huge cloud of smoke over the east side of downtown…. That was really our first sign.”

Evangelista had to be in Edmonton for a conference later this week. He decided to bump up his travel plans and head out on Tuesday.

As he was trying to get on the highway, he saw a wall of flame three to five meters away from him. He shot some video.

“I just couldn’t believe it was really happening. It was really only an hour later … where I was kind of processing things and I realized actually I’d done some pretty crazy, dangerous things just now.”

Evangelista said he did not feel fear at the time of shooting the video, though he could feel the heat. “It was only later on when I had a chance to reflect that I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty dangerous.'”

He said it took him about two hours to get out of town.

His house is next to the church where he works and he doesn’t know if either building is safe. Evangelista, who spoke to The Canadian Press from a hotel in Edmonton, said he expects the church will have to help people when life returns to normal.

“Everyone’s really evaluating. We know there are some neighbourhoods that are pretty much gone, and we know that some of our congregation members are from that neighbourhood. There are definitely people from our congregation that are going to need help, . . . but that might not even be the extent of the damage.”

–From Michelle McQuigge in Toronto

Fire forces closure of Shell oilsands project
May-04-16 1:57 PM

CALGARY – The wildfire raging through the heart of Canada’s oilsands capital dealt a blow Wednesday to crude operations, with Shell Canada closing a major mining facility north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The company temporarily shut down production at its Albian Sands mining operations located about 70 kilometres north of the city.

Shell said it made the decision to focus on getting employees and their families out of the region while also freeing up room at its 2,000-person work camp for some of the 80,000 people who were ordered evacuated Tuesday from Fort McMurray.

“Right now, our priority is providing support for our people, their loved ones and others in the area,” Shell spokesman Cameron Yost said in an email.

“Our work camp, the Albian Village, is now open to all evacuated Fort McMurray residents who need a safe place to stay and we are evacuating non-essential staff to make room for those who need it most.”

Shell is employing its landing strip to fly employees and their families to Calgary or Edmonton and has provided two teams to support firefighting efforts in the region.

Its two mines at Albian Sands have the capacity to produce 255,000 barrels of oil per day.

Suncor Energy said it has reduced production and staffing levels at the Millennium and North Steepbank mines, its main oilsands project just north of Fort McMurray. It said the facility is not in immediate danger from the fire.

“Our facilities are currently well removed from the fires and are not physically threatened, however, we are operating at reduced rates,” spokesman Paul Newmarch said in an email.

“We have evacuated all non-essential employees and continue to provide employee updates through our Facebook page.”

Most incoming and departing flights at the Fort McMurray International Airport, located southeast of the city centre, were cancelled Wednesday.

Canada’s oilsands are considered the third-largest reserves of crude oil in the world, with 166 billion barrels of recoverable oil covering 142,000 square kilometres.