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‘It’s a Fucking Ghost Town’: Inside Canada's Fort McMurray As It Burns

Fort McMurray is synonymous with Canada's oil sands. The sudden and mandatory evacuation caught residents, many of whom assumed the wildfire was under control, off guard.
May 4, 2016, 11:45pm
Photo via Becca Hess

Becca Hess, her brother, and best friend turned off their radio on Wednesday afternoon, dreading news of worsening conditions in their hometown, which they'd left as a vicious wildfire forced out 80,000 people and left parts of it in ruins.

"Coming up in the next hour or two, that's when those winds kick in every day at Fort Mac," Hess told VICE News. "We have very little confidence that the rest of Fort McMurray is safe at this point."

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When she woke up Tuesday morning, the level of smoke in Fort McMurray was the lowest she'd seen in three days. So she went about her day, running errands to prepare for an upcoming move to Edmonton.

But in the span of 20 minutes she spent inside a Walmart, the scene transformed.

"I could see it rolling down the hill like an avalanche," said the musician and concert promoter.

"Everyone on the other side of the [Athabasca] river was now in danger," she said. "You could see the flames from the city, and not just the smoke."

The wildfire has officially triggered a state of emergency in Alberta, officials announced Wednesday afternoon, with residential areas in the town synonymous with Canada's oil sands still up in flames, and more than 1,600 buildings decimated.

Photo courtesy of Becca Hess

The sudden mandatory evacuation caught residents, most of whom assumed the fire was under control, off guard. About 10,000 people went to oil sands work camps, north of the city, while 70,000 drove south.

Despite not being under an evacuation order on Tuesday, Hess figured the fire was headed her way and started packing her things. Walking out to her car, she saw others on her street doing the same.

"We were calm when we first started, like, 'let's just get out stuff,' so we were able to load up our possessions, and then the doomsday siren comes on [on the radio], and it's like, "Everybody out, everybody out!"

Hess describes what ensued as utter chaos.

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Mikey Kalogirou, who owns a gas station in the city, said he witnessed customers fighting each other to get gas, growing more and more desperate as the afternoon wore on.

Fort McMurray evacuated amid devastating wildfires: — VICE Canada (@vicecanada)May 4, 2016

"It was absolutely insane. Sixty people with jerry cans, trying to pump 10 to 20 liters at a time," said Kalogirou, who has refused to leave Fort McMurray, believing that he was safer staying put.

He said police came into the gas station twice, giving contradictory orders — first telling people to drive north, and the second time, to go south.

Kalogirou said he didn't want to end up being stuck on a highway for hours, with no food or supplies, and that it still wasn't clear which direction people should be heading in. His gas station was open on Wednesday, serving emergency responders.

"Paramedics and firefighters are dropping by," he said. "But other than that, it's a fucking ghost town."

Hess, who decided to travel south, didn't know just how devastating the fire was until they arrived at the Athabasca River Bridge, which links the two sides of the city together. It's now a key piece of infrastructure that fire crews are intent on protecting.

"We could feel it from there, all it would take is for a tire or tanker to blow," she said. "All the vehicles that got left behind started having small explosions from their gas tanks and engines."

Photo courtesy of Becca Hess

Ignoring instructions from law enforcement to drive north, where many evacuees are being accommodated in oil sands workers' camps, Hess, her brother and best friend each found a way around the highway entrance closures and drove south instead, heading towards the fire.

"To me, the idea of driving south through the fire was less scary than driving north, where the fire is moving to and where everyone is going to be trapped, in my opinion."

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"There's no telling what will happen when you're sitting on an oil patch with 10,000 people and waiting," she said. A four-lane highway is the only road that connects the camps to the south of the province.

Scott Long, executive director of provincial operations for Alberta Emergency Management, said that the province will move, at its first opportunity, to evacuate people they had sent north because the blaze had blocked the only highway going in the opposite direction.

Overwhelming devastation in Fort McMurray — Don Scott (@DonaldKScott)May 4, 2016

"It's managed chaos. Our preference would have been that most evacuees head south. That is not where we are right now," said Long.

"We need to stabilize the situation in Fort McMurray before we can [move people south]."

She recalls crossing the bridge, pulling into the downtown area and looking to the right: the neighborhood of Abasand was completely on fire.

"It's blazing, there's trucks and cars in the ditches, people leaving their vehicles and jumping in with other people because it's so congested, and people were realizing their cars aren't going to make it because they didn't have enough fuel."

Related: Here's Why the Alberta Wildfire Just Might Have a Lot to Do With Climate Change

Many, she said, grabbed strangers off the road and into their cars.

Embers and sparks flew across Hess's hood, with "people blowing tires left and right because it was too hot on the street," she said, adding that the plastic on the bottom of her truck's bumper was melting. "You could barely see, it was so hot."

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She powered through.

"There was incredibly thick smoke. You couldn't see a foot in front of you, everyone was at a crawl, and all you could see is flames in your rearview mirror. I wasn't thinking fast enough and all this smoke was coming in through my AC," she said. "I could see it looked like the genie coming out of Aladdin's lamp."

One more video before I head to Anzac. Stay safe everyone. — Robert Murray (@NovaCanuck)May 3, 2016

But Hess managed to get out, poured water on her tires to cool them off, and made it to her new house. Not all of her friends have been as fortunate though. She said a couple with a day-old baby was evacuated from Fort McMurray hospital, and another group of friends had to sleep at a gas station, waiting to be refueled. She doesn't know what happened to her friend's dog, which she couldn't get to because it in a house in an affected neighbourhood.

"We're incredibly lucky because we have an empty home in Edmonton that we were supposed to move into in a couple of days," she said. "Now, where our [old] home is, no one really knows what the damage is."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk