A couple has returned to Fernie after being evacuated from Fort McMurray earlier this month.
Sarah Thomas and Scott Malchuk arrived in Fernie on May 11 following the evacuation order on May 3. Over 88,000 residents were forced to evacuate, leaving their belongings and homes in danger as a wildfire ravaged the Northern Alberta city.
Thomas said residents noticed the fire on the Saturday prior to the evacuation. “We were being told on Monday not to worry about it,” she said.
Thomas went to work at the Jubilee Building in downtown Fort McMurray on Tuesday and attended a staff meeting at 12 p.m., which ended around 2:15 p.m. She says when she got out of the meeting, thick smoke was creeping into the downtown core.
“It was a colour we hadn’t seen yet,” she said. “It was like this dark purpley-red colour coming over the hill.”
It was at that point Thomas started to wonder if people were beginning to evacuate.
“Before that point, we were still existing in a world where the fire was going to be put out,” she said.
Thomas went home to quickly pack up what she could, including their three dogs and their ferret, in hopes of heading to Edmonton. Malchuk was already in Edmonton, having gone there that day for work.
“I grabbed the things I thought were important,” Thomas said, adding she saved an albino coyote Malchuk’s grandfather shot in the 1970s and a jar of sand from a beach in Australia. “I was leaving with really crazy things. I left with the things that we couldn’t replace.”
According to Thomas, the temperature was scorching hot when she got in her truck to leave – 38 degrees at 4 p.m. She was determined to get to Edmonton and not to a camp set up for evacuees. Thomas met up with a friend so they could try to convoy out of the city. She described driving through the city at that point as anarchy. Police were out at intersections trying to direct traffic out of the city.
“I was so grateful at that moment – it was probably one of our volunteer officers too,” she said. “They were there within an hour of all of this happening, which was incredible.”
“Somebody said the reason Fort McMurray evacuated 88,000 people successfully is because two-thirds of our town has safety training,” she continued. “It’s true. I don’t think any other community could have done what we did. People were so patient and so kind.”
After some creative driving, Thomas found her way to the southbound highway, headed for Edmonton. It was then that she noticed the full brunt of the fire and that it was endangering friends’ houses.
“As you’re pulling up to the bridges, you’re realizing you’re seeing the fire, you’re realizing it’s in Abadsands, at your friends’ houses,” she said. “The left hand side of me is on fire, the right hand side of me is downtown. That’s my place of work. That is the core of who we are in Fort McMurray. That was the decision they had to make that day was let the neighbourhoods burn or save downtown. And if we don’t have downtown, we don’t have anything. There is nothing to go back to.”
According to Thomas, the smoke and fire cleared just south of the Fort McMurray airport and as soon as skies cleared, people pulled over on the side of the highway. Thomas saw expensive vehicles parked on the side of the road, as people drove their more valuable cars to try and save them from the inferno.
“Once the smoke cleared, as far as the eye could see people pulled over – because we all thought we were going home.”
Thomas met Malchuk at a hotel in Fort Saskatchewan 13 hours after leaving Fort McMurray. The next day, their first priority was organizing a barbeque for evacuees.
In the following days, Thomas and Malchuk were in this odd limbo. They still thought they would be returning to their home in Fort McMurray in a few days time. Malchuck only had two changes of clothes with him, and they were both unsure of where to go. After a week of uncertainty, Thomas’ family convinced her to return to Fernie, where they are now awaiting further instruction from the authorities.
Currently, the couple is staying at a residence provided by the Fernie Lodging Company, who has given Fort McMurray evacuees a discount on their residences. Thomas says the two are trying to find some sense of normalcy in all of the uncertainty.
“Yesterday was the first day in eight days that I had my normal coffee, which is coconut oil and honey,” she said. “This is the first day I’ve washed my hair.”
Thomas credited the people in Fernie for their generosity, including Annie’s Awesome Animals for grooming their pets.
Thomas and Malchuk have heard that their house was not significantly damaged from the wildfire, but are expecting there to be some kind of work needed on the property. From what they have heard, they will not be able to return until the state of emergency is called off, which might not be until the end of the month. Throughout it all, they are still worried about their community and some of the aspects about Fort McMurray that hold dear. Thomas referenced a new McDonald’s that had just opened and a Denny’s restaurant that were both destroyed in the fire. According to Thomas, Malchuk was devastated at the loss of Denny’s.
“I was going through my wallet and I found my Denny’s Breakfast Club card, and I said, oh I guess I won’t need that anymore,” Malchuk said.
The strength and companionship the people of Fort McMurray have displayed during this emergency situation has impressed both Thomas and Malchuck. They spoke of people sharing photos so people could see if their homes were damaged, or to find pets that were left behind in the flurry.
“It sounds so weird, but imagine knowing that you have absolutely everything, but in this moment, having absolutely nothing,” said Thomas. “It’s so hard to even begin to comprehend.”