Fleeing Fire in Canada’s Oil Country

A police officer walking through a neighborhood destroyed by fire in Fort McMurray, Canada. Credit Rcmp/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A police officer walking through a neighborhood destroyed by fire in Fort McMurray, Canada. Credit Rcmp/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I don't know if my house still exists. I believe it does, for now. The latest reports show 12 homes destroyed in our neighborhood in Fort McMurray, Alberta. They’re trailer homes, on the other side of the main road from us, edging up against the forest. This is oil sands country, and although this is a depressed economy, the trailer homes are worth about $500,000 each. Even in Canadian currency that’s a lot.

I’ve been in Alberta about a decade now. We revel in our cowboy culture here, our Texas-meets-Montana beef-ranching and oil-pumping way of life. When it comes to crises we pride ourselves on being able to manage. But the fires that are raging now are growing at a rate that can barely be managed, let alone put out.

The Fort McMurray community of nearly 80,000 is in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands region. Unlike drilling, extracting oil from sand is costly, and works best when the price of oil is high. The last decade saw a boom of near-Klondike proportions. People from all over the country moved here, and a lot of them maxed out their lives — adding A.T.V.s and dirt bikes to their driveways, and working too many shifts to ever drive them. Then, around 2014, the overtime dried up, though people were still trying to live a time-and-a-half life. During the boom, people planned new facilities and infrastructure upgrades dependent on a future blessed with oil at $100 a barrel. Now empty lots lie undeveloped, waiting for the next upturn. If it comes.

We’ve had perfect conditions for a fire: A mild winter and a drier than usual spring caused lower moisture levels. One spark can grow quickly here, in boreal Canada, where forests surround the town. Unseasonal swirling winds took it from brush fire to disaster.

When we left our home to drive north to a safe place to take shelter on Tuesday, the roads were clogged, with traffic almost at a standstill. The trip we set out on normally takes 45 minutes; this time it took six times as long. For people who left after we did, it took twice as much again. I tried to imagine what that would have been like: nine hours, crawling along with an anxious beagle and a fractious 7-year-old on board. No thanks.

As we drove, we could see the fire in the distance, threatening the town. Radio reports confirmed what we finally realized. This was no overnight inconvenience. The evacuation was Alberta’s biggest, a whole town emptied in a polite and orderly fashion, according to the Canadian stereotype.

My wife was out “at site,” the local name for the oil sands businesses. Her company, Syncrude, reopened lodgings set to be demolished, and by my reckoning were able to accommodate close to 3,000 employees and their families, for which we were all thankful. The mattresses had dubious stains and no bedding, but they were safe from the fire.

We left at just after 5 the next morning, heading back south to somewhere we could stay longer. Everybody who left town and drove north, between 10,000 and 20,000 of us, knew that at some point we had to return. Past our burning homes and our deserted city.

As we came back toward town, the smoke was wall-like, reducing visibility to a few yards ahead of our lights. The flames had crossed the highway already, and we had been told they had also jumped the Athabasca River, about the length of a football field. It was scarcely believable until we saw the burned grass on both banks.

Our home was surrounded by houses that are burning. Later we heard the firefighters had been pulled out of our suburb. Either they’ve won, or lost. We fear the latter.

The day we left, some of our friends were dousing their cedar-shingled roofs with their garden hoses. It was futile, and they knew it, but the brain seizes under pressure. One neighbor packed his lawn mower, surely not an essential wherever he was heading. Later, on the way north, I fretted about the bananas I had left on the counter, wondering if they would ooze all over the place as they rotted.

The smoke billowed and hovered, rank and nasty. It felt like a film set. Tom Cruise would come around the corner and be told off by Emily Blunt. They’d laugh, hear “Cut,” and call for a do-over. But there are no second chances in Fort McMurray, not at the moment. My family and I made it out of town on Wednesday 30 minutes before they closed the road south. We don’t know when we will be allowed back. Home is an R.V. parked at my brother-in-law’s house. We’re lucky.

Throughout all of this, the population of Fort McMurray kept growing: Two babies were born in work lodges north of the city.

I sought counsel from people who had made it through a 2011 fire. Keep your receipts, and when you get home don’t try to clean a fridge with two weeks’ worth of rotten food. “Get rid of it,” advised a survivor of both infernos.

I think I can stop worrying about my bananas.

Kevin Thornton lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

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