Environment

The Strange Ways Canada's Wildfire Evacuees Escaped Fort McMurray

Escapes by quad, horse, and skateboard. Birth, death, and tattoos. Also: lost dildos.
Sarah Berman
Vancouver, CA
May 10, 2016, 5:55pm

Fort Mac has a few wild evac stories. All photos via Facebook

It's been a tough week for more than 80,000 residents of Canada's oil capital Fort McMurray. A still-burning wildfire now nicknamed "the beast" has destroyed more than 2,000 homes and buildings, damaged the city's power grid, and rendered the water supply undrinkable. That's left tens of thousands scattered throughout the province in makeshift shelters, still living out of hastily packed bags.

And while the disaster is still far from over—some predict the fire could last for months—the initial panic is slowly beginning to subside, and Fort Mac denizens are starting to share their war stories from the past several days in local internet forums. The result is equal parts harrowing and absurd.

"I've seen families with babies walking down the highway because they ran out of gas," Fort McMurray native Matthew Whiteford told VICE. "Or if they had a quad in the back, they would leave the car and continue on that for awhile. Then the quad would run out of gas. People were driving bumper to bumper for fourteen hours."

Whiteford has his own unconventional escape story. He says he skateboarded about four kilometers [2.5 miles] through Fort Mac on the night of the evacuation last Tuesday, before hitching a ride to safety with a stranger.

"It was clear skies behind me, but the view in front of me was a nightmare," Whiteford said of his foot-powered trip south on Highway 63, hours before police reopened the only road out of town.

"I had a backpack with a couple shirts and socks and a pair of jeans," he said. What he didn't have, obviously, was a car. "It was an emotional moment. Fort Mac is my hometown—it was like watching my world burn."

In a Facebook group devoted to the oil town's "controversial humor," residents remember the other strange ways their neighbors left town. Teenagers Karlee and Gwen Dion amused bystanders by riding horses down the highway. "Taking the horse is smart," said one poster Nikki Rae. "You don't need gas, and you can get through any traffic."

Others recounted cars and trucks going off-road, even knocking through fences to escape gridlock traffic as the flames moved in on the city. "Guy rammed through the wood fence at Golden Eagle campground with a cube van," wrote Scott Connell. "Looked like something off the movies. Wood splinters flying past me. Got to say it was funny as hell."

"I'm glad he did," chimed in Rob Boyd, "that's how we got out of there, so thanks."

What a time to be alive!

Then there were the two Fort McMurray women who went into labor just as police shut down the highway to Edmonton. New mom Susan Harty told CTV she thought for sure she'd have to deliver on the side of the road mid-evacuation. Though the district's mayor tweeted the babies were born in oil worker camps north of Fort Mac, both were actually delivered hours later after being airlifted to Edmonton. Since then, more residents shared photos of their own refugee newborns, while others listed fire baby name suggestions. (Blaze, Ash, and Ember seem popular, along with Darby Allen, after the district fire chief).

As the evacuation enters a second week, Fort McMurrayites' war stories have taken another twist. With only moments to pack, and many days left to suffer the consequences, the community is buzzing with jokes about less-than-logical disaster packing.

"Nothing for me to wear but got me bear head."

A thread nearly 1,400 posts long has tales of the strange and useless things people decided to take with them. There are endless photos of sewing machines, mounted bear heads, samurai swords, cake icing, cheese slices, wind chimes, and chain saws. Many reached for booze, often at the expense of family photos, laptops, passports, underwear, and socks. My favorite is a snap of a lost dildo in the street, with the comment: "Someone must have been in a rush evacuating Gregoire last night."

All this is to say the Fort Mac crew has been through a lot lately. They've been shaken up and forced to see and do weird shit. Which I guess is why some are now getting their battle scars inked permanently. There are at least a dozen Fort Mac Strong tattoos now out there, and it's safe to say there's a wild story behind each one.

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