Refuge and Generosity Along the Highway to Fire-Ravaged Fort McMurray

Over the last day, 300 Fort McMurray, Alberta residents have sought refuge at a camp off of Highway 63 that usually houses oil pipeline workers. Hundreds more are expected.
May 6, 2016, 6:55pm
Paula Fudge at Ledcor camp, which usually houses TransCanada pipeline workers. (Photo by Dan Owen/VICE News)

Empty cars pepper the median and ditches along Highway 63, the main road leading up to Fort McMurray, Alberta. Outside an A&W at a gas stop in Wandering River, a few hours south, Raj Ranjan leans against a pickup truck that he's stuffed with supplies for some of the 80,000 people who have been forced to evacuate their homes.

It's Thursday night and a couple in a white sedan covered with dirt creeps by.

"Do you guys need anything?" Ranjan asks. "A snack or something to drink?" They say thank you, but no, and continue along their way.

This is the second day he's come here from Edmonton to give out diapers, toys, and fresh produce to those escaping the wildfire. "A lot of people are overwhelmed with understanding this is all there for them, but a lot of people are shy, so sometimes I have to take the bigger step to just put these things in their hands," he said. A day earlier, evacuees crowded the parking lot, but things are calmer now.

Another man pulls up and tells Ranjan to bring his truck to the Ledcor camp a few minutes up the road. It typically houses TransCanada pipeline workers, but has now been turned into an evacuation center. Over the last day, 300 Fort McMurray residents have sought refuge there, and hundreds more are expected. On Friday morning, police began escorting a convoy of evacuees driving south through Fort McMurray, which has been devastated by a wildfire spanning 100,000 hectares.

Ranjan follows the man into the camp and up to the warehouse on top of the hill that overlooks rows and rows of portable houses. Volunteers descend on the truck and begin unloading the goods. A chain of people pass along donations from another truck back into the warehouse where others sort through the piles of water bottles, bags of pet food, and baby clothing, all donated this morning.

Paula Fudge, who had to flee Fort McMurray a day earlier just before she was about to undergo surgery, has taken charge of organizing the whole production.

Supplies at Ledcor camp. (Photo by Dan Owen/VICE News)

"I somehow found this camp and I'm in charge because, well, I'm just that kind of person," said Fudge. "Stuff has come here from all over. Prince George, BC, Calgary, there are so many people who need so much right now."

"But I don't believe this is the worst thing that could ever happen to us. What I told my daughter on the way here is that we are here, we are safe, and everything else is just stuff."

Sun sets on Ledcor camp. (Photo by Dan Owen/VICE News)

As the sun sets, people gather outside their new temporary homes to rest. Cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol hovers in the air.

Rebecca Irving sits on a lawn chair with friends and her bulldog Jackson. She and her coworkers at the trucking company she manages found a haven at the evacuation center in the town of Anzac until that, too, was evacuated early Thursday morning over fire concerns. "Some of our crew have lost their houses and it's been uplifting to see the good side of human nature in this place," she said.

"It's almost too good here," adds a man sitting across from Irving as he sips a beer.

Rebecca Irving and her bulldog Jackson. (Photo by Dan Owen/VICE News)

Inside each of the trailers, a long hallway lined with grey carpet and fluorescent lighting connects dozens of rooms on either side. Pieces of paper from TransCanada hang at the entrance with behavioral guidelines for the oil workers who usually live in these rooms.

A woman stands at the end of the hallway and combs her wet hair.

Christine Drul opens the door to her room, number 33. "It's a little messy," she says, pointing to the damp towel and scrunched up blue comforter on the bed. "But this isn't bad. There's my own bathroom, internet, food provided."

Inside the living space usually for pipeline workers, now home to — Rachel Browne (@rp_browne)May 6, 2016

Her two cats Ninja and BB try to jump from the top of the wardrobe onto the TV facing the bed. Drul has lived in Fort McMurray for nine years and just started work at a company in Anzac. "It looks like we're going to be here about two weeks," she continues as she puts the towel back in the bathroom. "But I'm pretty happy here, actually."

Just as the night gets started, Rebecca Irving gets up and says the camp's superintendent will probably stop by soon to usher everyone to bed.

She says it's great that people here are feeling positive right now and having fun, it's a coping mechanism. And the full realization of all that's happened hasn't sunk in yet. "Right now, everyone's in a state of shock and helping, but I know that what comes next is almost worse than the tragedy," she said.

Ninja and BB at Ledcor camp with Christine Drul. (Photo by Dan Owen/VICE News)

Paula Fudge. (Photo by Dan Owen/VICE News)

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne