Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Years from now, when I recount the adventures of the past several weeks to my son, grandchildren and anyone else who will listen,  about how I became caught up in one of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history, I know I will look back and see how I was prepared.  I will also see the way in which I was successfully prepared and,  since I see myself as a pretty honest guy, see a few things I wish I had done differently in order to prepare.

Shortly after the evacuation, someone asked me on social media if I thought that my northern experience had prepared me for events.  I answered an unreserved "yes".  Living in isolated communities, self-sufficency is definitely an asset.  Not that I'm any great survivalist of anything.  I wouldn't go that far but it really is true that necessity is the mother of all invention.  It's something I've subscribed to for some time.  While I grew up in a small town, I went to university in a major city and so I admit I became a little "citified".  I made money with my brain and essentially say my body as the vessel that carried my brain around.  Hands-on skills were not my forte....but that did change to an extent.  Some things that I take for granted now were things I learned that I honestly had no clue how to do before moving up there.....how to unthaw a frozen sewage pipe (that was fun), how to change a spark plug on a skidoo (honestly I didn't have a clue that these needed to be changed), how to change a drive-belt on a skidoo, how to eat a few foods I might not normally have given a choice simply because I had a choice between eating and not eating, how to dress for cold-weather conditions...in a nutshell, how to be prepared.   So yes, the mindset of being able to step outside of your comfort zone definitely helped.

When I was a teenager, I was involved in both army and sea cadets.  The motto on my cap badge was "paratus", Latin for "prepared", which has since become somewhat of a personal motto for me.  Cadet activities served me well.  During one summer camp when I was perhaps 13, I recall preparing for an overnight trip and being given a small pack to put your gear in for 3 nights outside.....a VERY small pack.  That's all you had.  You had to ensure you had enough clothing for three nights AND make sure it all fit.  I found that by rolling my t-shirts and underwear I was able to make it work.  Since then I've always been able to pack light and find that I just prefer it that way.  

When I was 15 I slept in a lot like most teenagers I suspect.  At cadet camp, THAT little luxury disappeared with 6am wake ups.  I hate being tired in the morning but I grew to dislike a staff cadet banging on my metal bunk with metal spoon even worse and so I forced myself to be the first one up and the first one formed up outside on the parade square for breakfast.  Over time, I challenged myself to be the first one out the door and was disappointed when I wasn't.   Before you think I'm some sort of sadist I can say that by challenging myself in this way I did keep staff cadets and officers off my case which suited me just fine at the time.  Inadvertently, I trained myself to be ready to head out on short notice, which is essentially what I had to do during the evacuation.

When I was about 11 or 12 the house next door to the house I grew up in, an old wooden structure, burned to the ground.  Awakened at god knows what hour, I have recollections of sitting at the kitchen table with my sisters, prepared to leave at any moment should our house catch fire.  While we had a solid century-old brick home, I knew that while the brick exterior would survive, it wouldn't take much for the insulation and old wood in the attic to ignite.  Three things happened that night.....I can't remember being so scared in my young life and I thought very hard about what was important to me, that stuff was just stuff.  I ALSO have though this many MANY times during that night....if I had to leave my home right now, what escape route would I take and what would I take with me?  

These were pretty much the same questions I grappled with on the afternoon of May 3.  I already knew I would go out the front door since the fire was nowhere near my house (or even my neighbourhood).  The only question I had to answer was what to take.  Fortunately I had some time.  I didn't need to leave in a blind hurry, though at the time I didn't know exactly how much time I had.  All I had to fit my clothes in was a small travel bag and the backpack I take to work.   I already had my wallet and house keys on me as I had just returned from work earlier in the afternoon.  I grabbed my passport out of my dresser and enough clothing to last me about a week if I stretched it.  I then grabbed Drifter and her kennel along with a partial bag of food and a small plastic sealable container. Before leaving I made sure all the windows and doors were closed and left some water behind in a sealed container.  I also filled the bathroom sink with some water as well.  

I count myself very fortunate that I got back to my home in time so that I was able to do these things.  Oddly enough, I had debated whether or not to even go in to work that morning.  Not because I had any insider knowledge on the imminent immolation of my community but because it was the last day of my shift and the warm weather we had had over the course of the weekend that had just passed had taken a lot of the proverbial wind out of my sails.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had jumped out of the cab home a few blocks away from my street and cut through a short trail and a few parking lots to get home in case a mandatory evacuation notice was issued for my area of town (which of course eventually happened).  At the time, I was functioning very much on the fly, making decisions and processing information very quickly.  I know I was prepared to hop backyard fences and cut through yards in order to make it home.

About a dozen years ago, I was working in a small community in northern Saskatchewan when the school I was in caught fire due to a faulty boiler.  Getting myself out along with my young charges was stressful to say the least, particularly when I realized that one of them was unaccounted for.  Re-entering a burning building was always something I was taught was strictly forbidden but under the circumstances I did what I felt I had to do.  In any event, the entire school population emerged unscathed.

A few things I did forget to do, namely I completely forgot to grab my home insurance and mortgage papers off the shelf in my closet.  In my defence I at least know where they are but at the time I didn't realize I would be gone for more than a few days at the most as the fire spiralled completely out of control.  I also really REALLY wish I had gotten rid of the meat and potatoes on the kitchen stove.  I'm sure I will be reminded of THAT little oversight the moment I walk through my front door.

In the end though, I'm safe and have a door to return to and open. I am grateful for the experiences I have had that have helped me be as prepared as one could expect to be.

Saturday, May 28, 2016


Slowly, I'm transitioning into the next phase of my little unexpected summer adventure and starting to focus on my return to Fort McMurray early next month.  I have to admit that, thinking about all that this entails, it has been a daunting task at times.

I don't have an exact return date nailed down yet though that will be the easy part.  After that comes a full inspection of my home, photos of any damage, determining what is safe from smoke damage and salvageable and what is not, washing or disposing of clothing, towels, curtains, cleaning my outside windows and siding, washing all my dishes (which with a boil water advisory could be fun), washing the floors and walls, checking out the attic, cleaning up the lovely pot of boiled potatoes that I know has been patiently awaiting my return over the course of the past 25 days...along with the meat in the pot beside it.  To top it all off, I suspect I may have a few bear issues in my neighbourhood as well.

I do expect some smoke and will just have to wait to find out about its extent.  I was silently thanking myself for closing all the windows before I left though I know that will probably not mean a completely smoke-free home.  Aside from the food in the kitchen that was left out, I suspect the refrigerator and freezer will be, in a word, nasty.  I've heard that while there were outages, parts of Thickwood kept power for long portions of time so while I'm hopeful my fridge may be salvageable I'm prepared for the reality that it may not be.  Depending on how much rain we've had, which I don't think has been that much, I also expect my lawn to be a small forest.  I also have some brush left over from when I had my ash trees pruned back in the fall pile up between the backyard shed and the fence which, in light of events, I am anxious to get tidied up as soon as possible.  Throw in trying to get in touch with two more tenants whom I haven't heard from since the evacuation and fitting all this cleaning and tidying around my work schedule when I start back and things start to get interesting really fast.  Daunting tasks ahead, but not impossible.

Fortunately, the city has been preparing and I have a wealth of resources to assist.  A few areas around town have been set up for returnees to access cleaning supplies and water and other resources they may need.  As luck would have it, there will be one set up at the high school a block from my house.  I also know that there are many other people in the same boat as me and that I am one of the lucky ones who at least has a functioning house to return to.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Fort McMurray Fire Photos

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my ordeal with being caught up in the evacuation from Fort McMurray.  It wasn't until this evening however that I was finally able to get some of the photos I managed to take posted to the blog.  By now, I'm sure you've seen tons of video and stills in the media.  At the risk of simply adding more to the mix, here are a few photos from one person's experience.

This was the sky to the west from my back deck around mid-afternoon.

By the time the mandatory evacuation order was issued, this was the view from my front door.

Another photo taken from my back deck looking east.

Another westerly view.  At this point I was starting to think that joining the mass exodus from town might be a very good thing in terms of self-preservation.

More photos from around my house.  At the time I had no idea where this smoke was coming from but thinking back I'm pretty sure that this was coming mainly from the river valley.  I had no idea how far away the fire was or even what was burning.  Having the television news on in the background broadcasting about the fires gave the me a pretty surreal feeling.

This was the last photo I was able to take of my street after Tony and I had the truck gassed up and we had returned for a couple of things we had forgotten in the rush to get Drifter in her carrier and through a few bags in the back of the truck.  I had no idea if that glow was just from the sun shining through the smoke and cloud as it began to sink toward the horizon or if nearby houses were actually on fire but at this point I honestly thought the neighbourhood was in serious jeopardy.  I later learned that what was likely burning as a forested area behind the street directly behind my street.  It's an area I know well from my bird-watching and indeed I had only gone over there about a week before the evacuation.    I know it will look very different to me once I return.

What I honestly thought would be the last photo of my house.  Looking at it now, I do have to admit its one of the better ones I have taken.  The background colours are pretty interesting.  Too bad my house had to be under threat of burning down in order for me to get such a background.

Expecting to be heading northward, I was surprised to reach Highway 63 and find us re-directed southbound.

A couple photos heading past Abasand hill.  It didn't look nearly as dramatic when we passed it as some of the photos I was to see later in the news but the smoke was very thick and disorienting.

Approaching the Hospital Street overpass that connects the downtown to the Abasand area.

Heading up Beacon Hill.  Once we got out of the valley, the sky did start to clear noticeably.  The smoke in the distance is likely from the Beacon Hill neighbourhood and a nearby trailer park.

If you heard of a hotel burning down during the fire, well this was it.  Not too much remained of the Super 8 by the time we passed by, driving southbound in the northbound lanes at this point.  The building looked like it had been struck by a very powerful bomb.

While the traffic looks a bit like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse, for the most part people drove sensibly and I didn't really feel it was overly chaotic.  Frankly, up until the Thickwood and Timberlea overpasses were built to greatly improve traffic flow, I felt very much as if I was driving to work on a morning 3 or 4 years ago....other than all the smoke and the city burning down behind us, that is.

At this point there was a lull in my photo-taking since I obviously had more pressing things I on my mind.  I did manage to take a couple of photos late the following day (May 4) shortly before we were again evacuated out of the tiny community of Anzac.

After leaving Anzac, Tony and I got as far as Conklin along Highway 881 before spending the night in the truck while waiting for the gas station to open.  We set out that morning (May 5) and arrived at the Bold Centre in Lac La Biche.  As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the outpouring of support and the volunteer spirit I witnessed were simply overwhelming.

The Bold Centre is an amazing facility to see in such a small community and it was clear that the people there took great pride in it.

A scene I was to witness countless times as people showed up continuously throughout the 3 days I was there with all sorts of supplies for evacuees.

I had been hoping to get a photo of some chalk greetings just outside the Bold Centre.  I had hoped to move the pylon for a clearer shot until I saw this little guy jump in.  It wasn't until a couple days later when I was looking back at my photos on my camera that I realized he had a piece of chalk in his hand and was re-tracing the letters on the ground.

....and Fort McMurray loves you right back Lac La Biche.

It took a couple of days for Drifter to relax a bit.  I could tell by her flattened ears here that she was still getting used to her surroundings but she was definitely a trooper through the entire ordeal.  By the end of the second day she was showing a lot of her regular behaviours and seemed much more relaxed.

After leaving Lac La Biche, I wound up at my grandmother's in Spruce Grove.  I had hoped to be back to work by now but mother nature has had other ideas in the meantime.  Earlier in the day I left for Grande Prairie where I find myself keeping a eye on events and very much looking forward to returning home in the near future.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Re-entry Plan

When I saw a seagull flying by yesterday with a giant stick lodged in its tail feathers I had a feeling it could be a rather surreal day. And indeed that is how it turned out as we learned about the re-entry plan for Fort McMurray. After the fire's recent spread and a few set backs I wasn't expecting to hear any good news any time soon. Needless to say, news of this plan gave me a welcome boost. This news was sweetened even further upon learning through a website put out by the municipality that my home sustained no serious structural damage. The smoke will be another issue I'm sure but I'll deal with that when the time comes.

The phased re-enrty plan means that I will be allowed to return home as early as June 3rd. Likely it won't be until a few days later but I do intend to return as soon as I'm able. I'm hoping I might get a bit lucky with my refrigerator as my area of town kept power for long than a few others. I do intend to bring a cooler with me just in case and we will be under a "boil water" advisory until at least the end of June. I'm glad I had the time and foresight to leave some potable water in sealed containers and one sink before I had to leave. I don't have any problems with roughing it for a little bit if I have to.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Holding Pattern

While I mentioned in my last post about looking forward to be able to return to my regular life in Fort McMurray, it looks like I, along with 88,000 other people, will have to wait a little bit longer as the situation has markedly deteriorated over the past 24 hours. The camp I had hoped to be working out of by week's end is now under threat from "The Beast". A nearby camp, Blacksands Lodge, fell victim to the fire this morning. The fire has closed more sections of Highway 63, the flames are encroaching on more oil sands facilities and a saw mill I pass by on my way to and from work is under threat.

And so I watch and wait to see what will come. Other than knowing a few people in the area and being familiar with the lay of the land up there, I really don't have access to any more information at this point. I did have a moment of alarm this morning when I learned of a couple of explosions due to gas lines in a residential area on the west side of town,in Dickinsfield and Thickwood. Both areas are about 2km from my street though I do pass by the one area in Thickwood on a more or less daily basis. It was a relief to know that my chateau is still hanging in there and my heart goes out to those who now have no home to return to.

I don't really have too much else to say at this point. I've been doing my best to keep to somewhat of a regular routine and blogging plays a role in that. A couple months ago I had planned out a short trip to Banff so I am hopeful that I will still be able to salvage that. Going bird watching without my guide and binoculars will feel a bit strange as I almost always have them with me. Surely, it might pose a bit of a challenge but then it isn't like I haven't had a few unexpected challenges to deal with over the course of the last two weeks.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Fort McMurray the Phoenix

By now I'm sure many people have seen seen the devastating videos and photos taken of the damage done to Fort McMurray. I have my own photos to share which I will be able to in time. It's surreal to me in many ways to see our community so battered and bruised. I suspect the reality won't fully sink in for me until I return to see it with my own eyes. An area of forest I visited back in February for some birdwatching is now charred and black. Another entire area of town I've traipsed through to do some hiking now exists pretty much only in my memory.

While we have been beaten down somewhat, I have no doubts that, like the proverbial phoenix, we will rise from the ashes. As I look forward to the weeks ahead, there is certainly much work to be done. Hot spots will need to be dealt with and roads cleared. Utilities will need to be restored. Businesses will need to get up and running again. And they will. Of that, I have no doubt. Odds are I will be back to work before I am back in to my chateau. I suspect that in the next couple of weeks I will be temporarily put in camp so that I am closer to my work and have a place to stay.

I'd be remiss if I neglected to thank more of the wonderful people who have helped me during this odyssey...

Big thanks to Tony first of all for the long drive to Lac La Biche and out of the danger zone.

Another thank you goes out to my work buddy Adam for taking me in his truck to Spruce Grove.

Many thanks and much love to my grandma Ferne for welcoming me in to her home at a late hour, filling me with good food, taking me shopping for some much-needed clothing and taking good care of me. Thanks too for her little dog Gracie for not raising a ruckus with Drifter, though I'm pretty sure she's figured out who the boss is between the two of them.

Thank you as well to my uncle Lee and aunt Kerri as well as my cousins Brayden and Beau for a great meal last night.

A special thanks to the wonderful lady, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten, in Lac La Biche who saw me sitting alone during a meal at the Bold Centre and took the time to sit and chat with me.

Thanks as well to Chad, a coordinator from work, who set my mind at ease about timelines for going back to work.

I can't wait to get back and start putting our community back together again, though I know it will still be some time before conditions are safe enough to allow it. The list of things I will need to do to get the chateau ship shape is long but manageable. In the meantime, I remain incredibly optimistic when I think of all the challenges my community has overcome....weathering lowering oil prices, facing the the wrath of the uneducated about what our community is all about. We will return. We will support each other. We will rebuild. If there's one word I've heard that has been used to describe Fort McMurray that has stood out in my mind it is "resilient".

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Safe From Fort McMurray Wildfire

The past 3 days have been incredibly challenging and difficult in many ways.  I'm writing this post tonight from Lac La Biche after being forced to flee Fort McMurray Tuesday evening due to the current forest fire situation.  There is much to say and will no doubt be commenting more in the coming weeks.  I am also writing this very post very much off the cuff, so to speak.  For now though, know that I am well and safe.

I left work early Tuesday afternoon after learning that the fire situation had rapidly deteriorated that morning.  In a nut shell I left the main gate of Suncor in a cab with 4 other fellows and returned to town to find thick smoke blanketing the community I call home.  I was stunned.  Fortunately it only took about an hour to get back to my house as we had a cab driver who knew the city very well and was able to avoid much of the congestion.  Fearing I might not be able to get to my street as we were already catching wind of evacuation notices, I jumped out of the cab a couple of blocks away and was able to get back using a few short cuts and parking lots.

The grey heavy smoke I saw the day before had returned and there was heavy black smoke coming from the direction of the golf course in the Wood Buffalo area to the west.  My tenant, Tony, had just woken up to prepare for night shift and was greatly surprised by my sudden appearance.  Following the news on tv was surreal to say the least.  We were watching a major community under siege from forest fires....and that place was HERE.  The wind made it difficult to give us a sense of how close the flames might be and at times it appeared as if things were calming down.  By 6pm, however, it became clear that the situation was rapidly deteriorating.   All the local  radio stations ceased broadcasting and  we  made the decision to leave.  I had 2 small bags packed and quickly called my parents to let them know what was going on.  Between Tony and I, were we able to get my cat into a small carrier and headed off in Tony's truck.  I had a tenant who was currently out of province and another tenant who works in the same trade as I do.  I hadn't been able to make contact with him yet but were certain that he had been evacuated to a work lodge north of town where we were also intending to go.  After a fuel stop, we reached highway 63 in rather good time only to find RCMP directing us southbound.  At that point we had no idea where we were even going.

Driving over the Athabasca and through the downtown was an apocalypse.  I'm sure most people have by now seen the many images and video through various media.  That was pretty much what we faced.  At various points we were directed to travel south in the northbound lands and by the time we reached the outskirts of town the northbound lanes were filled up with southbound traffic for as far as I could see.  Abasand  was an inferno.  Beacon Hill looked like it had been bombed.  There were cars and truck  and in the ditch and stuck in the median.  A trailer park was a smoking ruin.  A hotel was completely engulfed in flame.  The scope of the destruction we saw along the highway made it difficult for my brain to register anything familiar.  I couldn't even recognize that place.

Once out of town we heard on the radio that the hamlet Anzac was our best option so that's where we headed.  After a 3-and-a-half hour drive that normally takes 30-40 minutes, we arrived at the Anzac rec centre and checked in.   I expected to be there 3 or 4 days at the most.  While we had cots set up, we spent the first night in Tony's truck.  I was finally able to find an area in between the arena boards and the outside wall of the building that was safe enough to let the cat out for a much-needed stretch.  Drifter was a trooper. 

The following day (Wednesday) it became clear that the situation was deteriorating again.   A wall of dark cloud stretched across the horizon east to west as far as I could see.  Things were changing so quickly that even authorities had difficulty keeping up and keeping people informed.  All they could tell us by 10pm was to head south.  To where, we had no idea.

We caught rumours to head to the Nexen site perhaps 30 minutes down the highway and we booked it of Anzac about a 3/4 tank of gas only to discover that Nexen was sending its people out.  We were on the move again.  In the event, it was a good thing as I heard that by morning the fire ling was very close to Nexen. 

After a couple more hours we reached Conklin to find the gas station closed.  While I was confident we could get as far as Lac La Biche on our remaining fuel we decided that if we were wrong or hit heavy traffic we would be in some very serious trouble if we ran out of fuel.  We heard reports of mobile gas station being set up but in the moment we decided to stay put in Conklin for the night.  After spending the second of 3 nights in the truck.. RCMP arrived early the following morning and suggested we head to Lac La Biche.  We were able to top up our tank and get a coffee.  I had slept 2 to 3 hours in addition to the 2 hours the previous evening to this point.

Around 8am this morning we arrived in Lac La Biche and got settled in to the rec centre.  And that is where I find myself currently.  After a hot shower and a much-needed meal I was able to breath easier and collect my thoughts.  I`ve been able to get access to many resources regarding my work and house situation and as I worked my way through the list I found my stress level beginning to lessen.  I was heartened to see a few guys I know from work and collect information from them.  Thanks brothers!

I do have to say I am completely overwhelmed at the support Lac La Biche has given.  As I type this I am sitting in one of the field houses that is well-stocked with everything a person would need.  I had a few clothes with me, perhaps 3-4 days worth but no jacket so I was able to grab a nice hoodie along with all the toiletries I needed. 

I`m grateful to so many people I can`t possible name them all.  Thank you to the volunteers upstairs who are taking care of my cat.  She has a much bigger kennel, food, a proper litter box.  She`s obviously stressed but a little better than this morning. 

Thank you to the people of Anzac who opened their community to us and who have now been forced to evacuate in turn.

Thank you so much to the fine RCMP and EMS personnel of Fort McMurray.  Even as your own families and homes were affected you continued to perform your duties to the best of you abilities. 

Thank  you to all the people of Lac La Biche who donated sooo much.  I wish I knew who donated the hoodie I`m wearing so I could buy that person a beer. 

Thank you to all those who helped me deal with all the insurance and work related issues.   It`s never fun stuff to deal but at least I feel a bit more in control of my circumstances at the moment.  Things will take time to get done but they will get done. 

Thank you to the anonymous stranger who drove up to me to ask if I needed a ride anywhere. 

Thank you to the lady who directed me to the internet services so I could update family and friends and reassure them....and even write this post. 

Thank you to the man who dressed up as Santa.  You put a smile on my face and I know you brought comfort to that little boy you were walking with down the main concourse earlier this evening.  His smile made me smile.

I would also like to thank all the guys from work I`ve bumped in to for the information and encouragement they`ve passed along.  Seeing familiar faces in a sea of unfamiliarity enlightens the spirit.

While I`ve already said many thank you`s already, I`d like to acknowledge and thank Tony for his help in getting me through the last 72 hours.  I honestly don`t know where I would be right now otherwise.

This is only the tip of proverbial iceberg and I`m sure there will many more thank you`s to say in the coming days and weeks.

At this point it seems I will likely be heading to Edmonton in the next 2 days  to stay at my grandmother`s after I`ve finished taking care of as much as I am able to.  Yes, life is a bit up in the air at the moment but I know I`m better off than many others tonight.  I don`t have all the answers and still have a few things to work on but it will all get done in time. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Smoke in Thickwood

While there wasn't much visible smoke in my neighbourhood this morning, there certainly was by the time I got home from work this evening.  We are experiencing a bit of heat wave here with the mercury in the upper 20's but fortunately, there wasn't much wind.  I've seen some pretty dramatic photos of the fire online but it does appear that things are improving from what I've seen.

Wolverine Drive near Westview School

Wolverine Drive looking east.

Wolverine Drive looking west.

A couple south-westerly views from the school playground.

Looking west from in front of my house.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Dramatic Start to the Fire Season

If you've followed the news today, you've likely heard about the forest fires threatening Fort McMurray.  In order to assure friends and family I thought I'd do up a post here to their minds at ease.  First off, I can say that I am perfectly safe.  The fire that occurred in town was actually the closer of the two fires to my house (perhaps 4 to 5 kilometres away) but that fire is now under control.  While it did lead to a closure of Highway 63 leading north out of town, between Thickwood and Timberlea,the highway has since been reopened.  I actually passed right by the area on my way home from workand while there was still some smoke and the forest looked a bit black, there were helicopters and crews visible working on hot spots.  

Unfortunately a much more serious fire is still active on the south side of town.  (This would be on the other side of the Athabasca from where I am).  I had caught wind of possible evacuations for  the Gregoire and Beacon Hill areas and this appears to be the case.  So while I'm relieved and thankful that my home is under no threat and I am mindful of those here who can't make that claim here tonight.

I'm back to work tomorrow so odds are my readers might hear of future news before I do  as I don't have a cell phone (ya, I know, I'm different).  But if anything changes I'll be sure to update when I get the opportunity to do so.  

In the meantime, here's how today's events looked from my neck of the woods.  Both photos were taken shortly after 9pm this evening from the parking lot of Westview School in Thickwood.