SPRUCE GROVE, ALTA – As the wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray continues to burn out of control, residents and workers from the area are trying to come to grips with the harrowing ordeal and uncertain future. Amidst all the facebook updates and news stories streaming through to the East Coast, where many Fort Mac residents claim roots, there was one that was widely read in Eastern Nova Scotia; a post of gratitude and hope from John Craig MacIsaac who hails from Goshen. In the early Alberta hours of Friday morning, MacIsaac spoke to The Journal about his experience of the Fort McMurray evacuation and his hope to generate support for those affected by the fire through his story.
MacIsaac has lived in Fort McMurray for eight years. He has worked many jobs in that time and is currently working as a crane operator out in one of the camps. But his life is focused in town with his wife and two young children. Last week was his week off from work and he was thankful to be home with his family when emergency struck.
Thinking back to last Tuesday MacIsaac said, “Just a typical normal morning; we knew there was a wildfire but none of us felt particularly threatened...They were keeping us updated but there was not a whole lot of worry around town, it was just another day. It’s not the first time fires were close to town. It has happened before but that is just part of living in a remote region like that; your surrounded by forest.”
The morning went as usual. MacIsaac’s older daughter went to preschool and a friend’s child came over to be babysat. But things changed quickly. “My wife got back from dropping my daughter at preschool in the early afternoon. When she got back the smoke just started to change and it just got bigger and there were a few more plumes in different areas. For the first time I felt nervous.”
After some discussion and consideration the family decided to pick up their daughter from preschool and pack up for the voluntary evacuation that had been announced on the radio. MacIsaac’s wife headed off to the school but “before my wife could get home there was already a mandatory evacuation.”
MacIsaac packed up his younger daughter and the child the family was babysitting, called his wife who was at the school, and told her to meet him at the other end of town. Worry started to set in but at least the family had filled up both vehicles the day before as a precautionary measure.
Describing his attempt to escape Fort McMurray was difficult for MacIsaac. Clearly shaken, he said, “We tried to escape through the South of town, before I got to the highway traffic was just backed up. By the time I got to Beacon Hill, which is only a few kilometres away, everything was in flames. There were flames to the right of me and there were flames across the road.”
MacIsaac continued his harrowing tale even though it was upsetting to do so. “If I can make people understand so that they can do anything to help us, as a community, then that is fine.”
MacIsaac continued, “The flames were across the road and traffic was stopped. I saw people with cars in the ditch and they were running. Cars moving back North away from it, they were just crawling. There was a concrete median so I could not get turned around right away. I had to wait for room and finally I got turned around. I was sitting there and thinking, ‘This is it for my little girl.’ She stood up, I had no car seat for her...she was standing in the passenger seat just smiling at me.”
Finally, MacIsaac was headed North and out of the path of the fire his 22-month-old daughter’s smile urging him on. “At this point we still didn’t know that it was going to rip through the town like it did.”
MacIsaac was in phone contact with his wife and they arranged to meet at a friend’s house in what was considered a safe area of town. As they headed North, the couple were separated by mere minutes and were united at the prearranged location. From there they drove in one vehicle heading North towards the work camps. “Smoke was coming up behind us. We did not know how far back the flames were. You could not see through the smoke,” he said of the journey to the camp.
The work camps are a familiar location for MacIsaac but what he saw during the evacuation was surreal. “I saw some of my coworkers out directing traffic and trying to help in the parking lot...I got up to the front desk and I saw camp workers standing behind their foreman and the foreman with the room keys asking them to give them back to give to people from the town. There were kids running around. It’s a work camp I’ve stayed in and its just filled with men all the time. You barely see a woman’s face there most days...and then there are entire families there.”
Out of immediate danger but facing an uncertain future MacIsaac reflects, “We are so lucky. Everyone I know is safe. I don’t know how they got everyone out. I know people are angry and frustrated and they don’t know how to cope and deal with it....They got everyone out of that town.”
The family is currently in Spruce Grove just outside of Edmonton in temporary accommodations. In light of their ordeal MacIsaac said, “There’s no way to express how grateful we are. The selfless acts you see from people; I had a waitress give me two ponies for my daughters that were her daughters’ toys. Had a complete stranger pay for diapers at Walmart, a complete stranger pay for our breakfast, a restaurant giving us free food; things that you don’t know how much they mean. You hear people say the same thing, ‘Of course that is what you do,’ but you truly don’t know what that means, how much that can help someone, not even the financial concern, but the caring that most people have.”
While MacIsaac is grateful for all the help his family and other families from Fort McMurray have received, he wanted to emphasize the giving nature of the community which is now in need. “I would like to impress upon people that the town that they are trying to help deserves it. This is the most giving, caring, generous community that they could imagine. It is a community built on small town people who have always helped out their neighbour. It’s been hand-built by the people that live there, it wasn’t passed down to them. We’ve spent our time there building that place. We built schools there. We built whole communities; complete areas of town that weren’t there eight years ago that are there now some of which isn’t standing today. Bridges and roads and infrastructure. A young population with so many young children, record numbers of children born there all the time...It’s a community built for young people because there are so many children; so much youth and energy. I can’t think of a place that I would rather raise my kids.”
Fort McMurray is known for its generosity to others in need be it victims of the fire in Slave Lake several years ago, the food bank drive, or fundraising for a local firefighter in need. “Anytime the community has a need the citizens have responded. Anytime something in this country has happened, they have opened their hearts and their wallets and responded. And if you could possibly respond to us, it means everything...$10 could mean a blanket for somebody. It could mean a toy for a child who has nothing. I know people who got out with nothing, just the clothes on their back and they did not even get their pets,” said MacIsaac.
“I met a friend yesterday and we got our kids together to play and everything they were wearing was out of a bag someone donated. They did not get out with a stitch of clothing,” he said with emotion.
Much is still uncertain for the residents of Fort McMurray; they don’t know if their homes are still standing, they don’t know if they still have a job, they don’t know when they’ll be allowed back into the city to assess the damage wrought by the fire. But there is one thing that they do know; people are kind, people are generous, and there is a nation-wide effort mounting to support them in this time of need.