A couple is thankful for arriving safely in Cranbrook after escaping the wildfire that is raging throughout parts of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta.
Kelsey and Janna Lutz, both originally from Cranbrook, were in different parts of Fort McMurray when the mandatory evacuation order was issued.
They managed to meet up and wait out bogged-down highway traffic before heading south to Edmonton, along with Janna’s sister, Abby Byford and her boyfriend.
The fire, which began 15 kilometres from Fort McMurray at the beginning of the month, grew exponentially due to extremely dry conditions and high winds, which pushed the blaze towards the city.
Initial estimates have determined that 2,400 homes have been destroyed by the fire, one of which included the Lutz’s home in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood.
However, officials are also reporting that 85 to 90 per cent of the city is still intact.
Lutz knew they’d lost the home after seeing a video on Facebook that a friend had sent him.
“We were able to see our house and see the car in front and see that there was completely nothing left, just a chimney and a hunk of metal out front,” he said.
Reported on Sunday, May 1, the fire quickly grew and a local state of emergency was soon declared in the Fort McMurray’s southern neighbourhoods.
While there was talk of voluntary and mandatory evacuations, Kelsey and Janna decided to be prepared for the worst, packing up photo albums and important papers, just in case.
The two went to work at Syncrude sites outside of the town on Monday, and again on Tuesday, with Kelsey using his own vehicle instead of a company bus, just in case he needed to get home quickly.
On Tuesday afternoon, their neighbourhood, Beacon Hill, was put under a voluntary evacuation order.
While Kelsey headed back into town, while Janna caught a ride with some friends. Abby, who worked at a downtown recreation complex and lived with them, had already made it home and were trying to salvage what they could.
“In the meantime the fire had come up and was basically burning the trees all around our place and there were houses on fire all over the place in the neighbourhood,” said Kelsey.
Officials issued a mandatory evacuation and Abby and her boyfriend were forced to leave. With only one way in and out of the subdivision, and a gas station on fire at the entrance, the two had to go off-road and down a steep embankment to get to the highway.
After hearing from Abby that there was no way that Kelsey was going to be able to get home, he headed to Wal-Mart and picked up some necessities—a tent, sleeping bags, air mattress, and food and water, and waited for Janna to meet up with him.
“The hope was that we could make it south, because I knew that if we went north, we’d basically be trapped up there,” Kelsey said.
With traffic moving at a snails pace—a block every half hour—the two decided to try and wait it out before RCMP ordered them to clear the area and head north.
Stopping just a few kilometres north of the city, the two again waited again until late evening to try and head back down south on the highway.
“Made it through town, it was pretty slow going,” said Kelsey. “The highway was on fire both sides of the road, thick smoke, but we made it through the town and out to the small town of Anzac.”
There, they met up with Abby and headed for Grassland, knowing they couldn’t go any further because they’d need to refill the gas tank in order to get to Edmonton.
“We knew we had to stop at Grassland, we couldn’t make it any further without getting gas and at Grassland, there was about a 13-kilometre lineup to get into the city to get gas,” Kelsey said.
“…All the way down there were cars in the ditch and on the side of the road that had run out of gas everywhere—hundreds and hundreds of cars.”
They made it to Edmonton, where they have some family, but decided to come back home once they realized the situation wasn’t going to be resolved quickly.
The couple is thankful for all the support that is being shown to Fort McMurray evacuees from all across the country—including their hometown.
“We were impressed that the support reached all the way to Cranbrook,” said Kelsey. “We heard about the radio station collecting all the $40,000 and sending that up, so that was impressive.”
Kelsey added that his employer has been very accommodating to their employees, and is working towards restarting operations.
“Once it opens up, our first step will be trying to find something to rent so we can go back to work and have somewhere to live while we rebuild,” he said, adding that his insurance company is estimating between two- to two-and-a-half years to rebuild, given the number of houses destroyed.
As of Tuesday at press time, officials are now starting to shift their attention to oilsands infrastructure as a mandatory evacuation order was issued late Monday through a 50-kilometre zone north of the city.
The zone covers mostly work camps for companies such as Syncrude and Suncor, plus some smaller operations, that affects roughly 8,000 people.