Wildfire Evacuees Tell Stories of Hope and Generosity

May 19, 2016

Almost 90,000 people have left their homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, as a massive wildfire ravaged their town.

They spent hours in traffic, unsure of where they were going. Many don’t know if the homes they left behind are still there, or when they can return to Fort McMurray.

Our photographer met evacuees in the cities, towns, and camps that have taken them in. The evacuees shared stories of their escapes and of the kindness of the strangers who have welcomed them.

Brant Pritchett is staying at an oil workers camp in Wandering River, Alberta. To evacuate, Pritchett drove through the Beacon Hill neighborhood with his cousin and younger brother in the car. “There were flames on both sides of the highway. It was pretty scary,” he says, “especially when you have your little brother and your little cousin in the car with you, and they’re freaking out, and you have to tell them to calm down.”

It took Victoria and Clinton Lizee almost 10 hours to evacuate Fort McMurray and travel to Lac La Biche 110 miles (177 kilometers) away.

“It was really frightening, because all the ground was on fire. It was like when you see pictures of a volcano with the lava pouring down the hill; it looked like fire puddles. When you looked in the rearview mirror, it was like a bomb went off. You could just see a cloud of smoke over Fort McMurray for a couple of hours,” Victoria says.

“Most of us work at the oil sands, so we’re so well trained in responding to emergencies. That helped everybody to evacuate the town safely.”

And once the Lizees arrived at Lac La Biche, they found a warm welcome. “They opened up the fishing season early because there are so many people sitting around doing nothing. This town that I’m in is absolutely amazing. The people are so nice. There’s this company that decided they were going to wash dogs for free. A woman overheard us say we needed a phone charger, and she gave us hers. We went for Chinese food and the waitress would not accept the tip,” Victoria says.

Jamie Osmond lived in Fort McMurray with his wife and four kids for almost 20 years before evacuating.

“The house is gone. We lost everything,” he says.

Now Osmond and his family aren’t sure where to go next. “Our youngest just turned 10 on the ninth. We ended up celebrating his birthday down here,” he says.

Joyce and John Smith have lived in Fort McMurray for 38 years, after moving there from Australia. Here, they carry the supplies they picked up at a donation outpost in an oil workers camp. The couple didn’t have time to pack before they evacuated Fort McMurray.

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