Fort McMurray Wildfire: Relatives hold their breath as Albertans flee

Stories of people fleeing Fort McMurray with flames just moments behind them have been filtering back to the Cowichan Valley.

Stories of people fleeing Fort McMurray with flames just moments behind them have been filtering back to Cowichan Valley residents worried about relatives and friends living in the path of a raging forest fire that has devastated the Alberta community.

Duncan’s Meredythe Broadway and her family here have been among those holding vigil.

“Our youngest son Jon, and his wife, Kayla have three children under four. They just had their third baby in February. They lost their home yesterday,” she said Wednesday.

Broadway had just visited the family in March to help welcome the newborn, so she knows the area well.

“Kayla and the kids and their dog packed up and left on Monday. Her parents live south of Fort McMurray,” she said.

But her son didn’t leave until there were flames at his heels.

“Jon waited and finally left as their neighbour’s house went up in flames. He actually had to do some pretty creative driving along a bike trail in a vehicle. He had to go cross-country to get to the highway from his house,” Broadway said.

“I think that happened a lot.”

Her son, Ken, now on the Island, spent six years in Fort McMurray.

“He was on the cellphone with Jon as he was escaping. He was encouraging him and telling him what to do,” Broadway said.

“Also, he had many friends and associates he was staying in contact with yesterday. The whole evening we were all together here just holding vigil.”

Their northern Alberta family members are now together, safely away from the roaring flames.

“Everyone was evacuated, including her parents. They all cavalcaded. They’re in the Edmonton area on a farm where someone had places to park motorhomes,” she said

But taking the road south was not easy for Broadway’s family.

“Yesterday the highway was blocked because of gridlock and the fire. They had a boat and some quads and that was actually how they thought they were going to have to escape with the three little ones. It’s been pretty hairy but we’re so thankful. The house was insured and they’re all alive and well.”

She was concerned, watching the progress of the fire, that some Fort McMurray residents seemed to be determined to stay as long as possible near their homes.

“I think many people stuck around too long,” she said. “We were not very happy with Jon, but I understand. You don’t think it’s really going to happen. And you think there’s one more thing you can grab or fix because time is so short.”

“There will be time, now, to catch their breath with the family, at least, but Jon’s in construction and they’re going to be pretty busy up there. There will be a lot of jobs there,” she said.

Another Valley resident, North Cowichan Coun. Tom Walker, was also deeply concerned as he followed events in northern Alberta.

“I have renewed acquaintances in the last few years with a cousin of mine, Dan Ambrose. He went up to Fort Mac as a young fellow from the Fraser Valley, looking for work, long before oil became a hot topic. He’s raised his children and now his grandchildren there. He owns a house on Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray but also has a summer cabin in Lac La Biche; he [and wife Edna were] there during the fire. His daughter and his grandson came out last night [Tuesday].”

Walker caught up with them on Facebook briefly Tuesday night.

At least three of that family own homes in the city; “we don’t know yet what’s happened to them but it’s not a good time to press him for those kind of details. They’re out, they’re safe, they’re at their summer cottage,” he said.

Walker spent 35 years working for the BC Forest Service, so when he saw news of the fire, his reaction was a little different than the average Valley resident.

“I fought my first fire at 16 years old and my last at 66 years old. I got evacuated from my cabin one summer when I was 66 and then they asked if I would do a 14-day stint helping to run helicopters and some air support stuff.

“I probably look at fires differently. I have an interest. I quickly checked the weather there yesterday. They had a temperature of over 30 C, and relative humidity of 14 per cent, and wind. So, when you get those conditions and a fire gets moving, there’s only one thing you can do: get the hell out of the way,” he said. “I’ve been there and done that on a few fires in B.C. All you do is wait for some openings and pick away at it, and watch for the weather to change a little bit and become more reasonable.

“You’ve got to protect the life and property of the general public, but you have to protect the lives of your firefighters, too. There’s a time to go in there and there’s a time to back off.

“I was also a ‘bird dog’ officer years ago, leading three water bombers for two years out of Prince George, so I understand fires and that you do put out 95 per cent of them. The other few have the potential to raise hell and this one did, I guess,” Walker said.