Traffic was gridlocked and the air was thick with smoke.
The heat from the flames permeated the vehicle, and ash was raining down so heavily that Tara Findlay used her windshield wipers to brush them away.
As Findlay and her family drove away from the flames raging around them in Fort McMurray, her sisters Crystal and Brandy Verschoore of Abbotsford stayed on the phone with her.
The worried siblings, who were together at Crystal’s home, provided the soothing voices Tara needed as she fled from her home in Timberlea, a neighbourhood located about eight kilometres northwest and across the Athabasca River from downtown.
Crystal and Brandy kept Tara updated on the situation, including the recommended route she should take and the status of the wildfire.
It didn’t look good, and the sisters could hear the fear in Tara’s voice as she described what was happening.
“I don’t know if we’re going to make it out,” Tara cried at one point.
Crystal and Brandy felt helpless.
* * *
Tara, a former Abbotsford resident, had moved to Fort McMurray with her family – husband Shawn; son Nick, 14; and daughter Kara, 11 – about six years ago.
She worked in the computer field, while Shawn was between jobs.
When Crystal heard on Tuesday afternoon there was a wildfire in Fort McMurray, she wasn’t too concerned. She had previously lived in northern B.C., where forest fires were a common occurrence.
She spoke with Tara, who was at work and apprised her of the situation. On her lunch hour, Tara had gone to the mall across from her work, and the skies were blue. When she came out, massive plumes of smoke could be seen on one side of the highway, and she knew the situation was becoming more serious.
Several sections of town had already been ordered to evacuate. Although their neighbourhood wasn’t under such an order at that time, Tara and her family began preparing to leave.
Tara left work and picked up Nick, while Shawn picked up Kara. They all met at home, but Tara was worried about running out of gas once they left, so she opted to take their Dodge truck and fill it up first.
Many gas stations were already out of fuel, but Tara – along with hundreds of others – found one still operating.
She waited in line for two hours before Shawn messaged her that he had siphoned gas out of one of their old vehicles, and she should come home.
By that time, traffic was gridlocked, all heading in one direction. Tara had to travel the opposite direction to get home, and her only option was to drive along the sidewalks. As she drove home, she began speaking with Crystal and Brandy on the phone. They stayed with her until Tara got back to her neighbourhood.
Tara’s family left their home – under evacuation order by then – at about 6:30 p.m. and headed south. Tara was in one vehicle with Kara, while Shawn and Nick were in their truck and travel trailer. Their two small dogs, Jake and Nico, also accompanied them.
Traffic was moving at a glacial pace. Tara again connected with her sisters, and they stayed in contact through much of the journey.
Tara described driving through the heaviest portions of the fire, saying it felt like Dante’s Peak – a 1997 disaster movie about a volcano erupting near a small U.S. town.
At one point, Tara grew increasingly concerned about running out of gas, but Crystal and Brandy, who were researching information online, were able to advise her of locations along the route where gas was available.
They were able to fuel up in Wandering River – about 200 kilometres from Fort McMurray. It had taken them eight hours to get that far, due to the heavy traffic.
The family stopped for the night in a parking lot along the way, and traffic was lighter when they awoke about three hours later. At about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, the family arrived safely at Tara’s mom’s place in New Sarepta, Alta., about 50 kilometres from Edmonton.
A drive that should have taken them about five hours took almost 24 (minus sleeping time), but they were safe.
* * *
Tara and her family are currently living out of their travel trailer on her mom’s property. They have been told that 17 homes in their neighbourhood were destroyed by the fire, but they don’t yet know if theirs is one of them. Even if it is still standing, the smoke damage will make it unlivable, Crystal says.
More than 1,600 buildings have been reported destroyed across Fort McMurray.
“I don’t think it’s hit them yet. I think it’s all very surreal,” Crystal says of how her sister and family are dealing with the aftermath.
She says they are just happy that no lives were lost, and that they can deal with whatever comes next.
Tara, Shawn, Kara and Nick are among 80,000 people forced to evacuate Fort McMurray and surrounding areas.
Aid agencies, companies and Canadians across the country are pledging to assist Albertans who have been displaced or lost their homes.
The main agency accepting donations is the Canadian Red Cross, which has set up an emergency “Alberta fires” appeal. Text REDCROSS to 30333 to make a $5 donation.
People in B.C. wanting to set up a personal crowdfunding campaign can do so through the BlackPress4Good fundraising site.
BlackPress4Good will waive the regular fees (excluding credit card fees) for any personal crowdfunding campaign launched in support of friends or family members affected by the Fort McMurray fires. See blackpress4good.com.
(The photo below was taken by Tara Findlay at about noon on Tuesday as a wildifire began spreading through Fort McMurray.)