"I thought there might be a few items left, but all I could find was nails, there's nothing left there at all," said Adam Fras of his house in Fort McMurray last week.
The 31-year-old Parksville firefighter had just returned north days earlier for his 10th year of seasonal work as a bush pilot.
On Sunday, May 1 there was smoke in the distance as Fras got back into the swing of things, shuttling people and supplies to the remote communities north of Fort McMurray.
He said it was a busy day in town and he was actually working at a trade show at the McDonald Island sports complex when people started to notice smoke to the southwest.
"Fires are pretty typical in this area, we get them all the time, but we started to see air tankers arriving," the 31-year-old told The NEWS by phone on Friday.
"There were about three fires that started at the same time. One was closer to town so they put all their efforts on that one and put it out, but this fire to the southwest just continued to burn. Fires don't typically move that fast and there were air tankers on it, so everyone felt like it was being taken care of, and it was to an extent."
But as people around the world now know, the conditions were set. "The trees didn't have a chance to bud, there's no greenery on them, it's just all dry, dead leaves and trees, so when the winds picked up it gave it all the fuel it needed for the fire to spread."
From late Sunday into Tuesday there was lots of smoke and activity around the fires, but it seemed fairly routine, Fras said.
"On Monday winds shifted a couple of times and they put out voluntary evacuations so I went back to my house and packed up a few things and then it kinda died down so people went back home and everything was fine," he said.
"And then on Tuesday (May 3) I was out on a flight, watching the fire. It was a fair ways from the city still, it didn't look like imminent danger. But when I got back to the airport, within an hour the smoke was heavy over town and it was looking pretty bad."
“So I decided to head home and grab some things, important documents and things like that, but the mood was still that the fire’s going to pass the city,” he said of his about-to-be-famous Beacon Hill neighbourhood.
“As I drove back into the city people are standing at their front doors, not in any big panic, just standing there feeling like it wasn’t going to come this way, but as a firefighter I recognized that where the smoke is going, that’s where the fire’s going and I figured we had about 30 minutes.”
“I started packing up my car with as much stuff as I could from my roommates, I called them to ask what they needed, then as I drove off — you have to drive towards the fire to get out of the Beacon Hill area — you could see the flames coming through the trees just off in the distance.”
“At that point you realize the people that weren’t already leaving their house are going to be leaving with nothing,” Fras said.
Police directed him toward the initial evacuation centre on McDonald Island, across downtown from the fire.
“As I turned down the highway and looked back toward Beacon Hill you could see flames coming through the trees among the houses and — because there’s only that one road out — people were getting stuck trying to drive over the embankment to get onto the highway. They started abandoning vehicles on the side of the road.”
“With the strong winds you could see small tornadoes picking up dust and dirt where the winds are blowing one way and the fire’s breathing it back, it’s making these 40-foot tornadoes of dirt and ash and embers flying overhead and it started lighting up spot fires on both sides of the highway.”
“That’s when you realize this is jumping the highway, it’s not even stopping at this one subdivision.”
“I drove down the hill and parked at Hospital Street and looked back and you could see the fire just coming over hill, animals were coming out of the forest into the streets where everyone’s trying to evacuate, but now the road’s getting closed, trees are collapsing…” Fras’ upbeat tone faltered as he paused, before summing it up simply: “it was terrible.”
This was just after 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, the moment many have seen video and photos of, including people driving down the only road out of Beacon Hill surrounded by fire, where Fras had just come from.
“I just kinda took it in for a minute and watched this tragedy unfold, the flames coming over the hillside, the animals running out from the woods. It was so overwhelming in every sense. All the traffic backed up as far as you could see, ambulance, police and fire trucks everywhere. Feeling the heat and wind, smelling the smoke fill the air.”
“Above all it was the sounds that brought the biggest sense of disaster. Sirens from emergency vehicles going every direction, helicopters overhead, constant explosions in the distant, radio emergency broadcasts blaring, and the fire roaring; it was like living through a movie of the apocalypse.”
“As I got to MacDonald Island there’s helicopters coming over the city and water bombing city hall, scooping right out of part of the river that separates MacDonald Island from the city, so they’re between us, and it’s just a few blocks from city hall.”
“They’re constantly scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping, trying to save that asset where all the emergency and forestry and radio communications operate, so it’s a lifeline for emergency operations.”
On MacDonald Island people had a moment to gather themselves.
“There were families; there was a lady with a two month old baby and people with their dogs. They had a pet centre set up; people just banding together.”
“There was a lady in a wheelchair with a breathing machine and she was sitting all alone so I sat down with her and checked how she was doing and after a while her husband found her, so they got reunited, so I let them be together.”
Meanwhile the rest of town was in chaos and officials started a voluntary re-evacuation to move people further away, though Fras said a lot of people didn’t want to move again.
“The fire kept growing and coming toward us and within a few hours the smoke was filling the city so much and it was starting to come into the building so they made it a mandatory evacuation and brought in buses.”
With the road north of town already closed he followed a bus convoy headed to Anzac, 36 km southeast of town, as far as the airport where he was able to gather with co-workers in a familiar place more than a dozen kilometres from the fire.
Winds were calming, the cooler night air helped and the fire was headed in the opposite direction as people crashed throughout hangars with packing blankets.
Things looked pretty calm in the morning so a small group headed back to try to rescue pets.
“We drove back into town at six in the morning. There was nobody around, no police, no firefighters, everyone was gone,” he said of once-familiar neighbourhoods, now flattened.
Fras said the estimate that 80 per cent of the buildings in Beacon Hill were lost seems about right, but most of those still standing were in small clusters, so there were huge areas completely flattened, with the odd untouched house.
“We drive up to our house, completely expecting it to be gone, as it was, but something draws you there, you have to see it, have that confirmation.” His colleagues’ and their boss’ homes were all destroyed.
“As far as feelings or emotions at a time like that, I’m at a loss for words. You’re happy you’re safe and everyone’s safe and you quickly realize it’s just stuff, it just kinda doesn’t matter anymore,” he said of standing where his front door had recently been.
They could tell where they were from the streets and the odd lamp posts, fire hydrants or burnt shells of vehicles — including his roommate’s, still in the driveway — but it was otherwise an alien environment.
They headed back to the relative comfort of the airport where the ever-growing and shifting fire was now headed. Crews began sending planes off in various safe directions to get them out of the way.
Some pilots headed home, or south to larger cities, but since Fras didn’t have any family nearby, “I chose to come to Fort Chipewyan since their lifeline is now cut-off and we hadn’t done a grocery run in a couple of days, so I took as much supplies as I could for the community here.”
“I was in the grocery store here yesterday (Thursday) — one grocery store to feed 1,200 people — and there’s no milk, there’s no bread, there’s no meat, there’s just a few fruits and vegetables and canned goods,” he said, though food was expected soon.
Back to work
“It’s more than just Fort McMurray affected by this, it’s all the communities we service like Fort Chipewyan. This place is like a second home. I walk down the streets and everyone knows me because I’ve been flying them and their groceries in for years.”
“I was walking down the street yesterday and a guy comes over and gives me his quad for the day and said ‘you can use this to get around.’”
Still worrying about all the activity 150 km south of him, Fras admitted, “It’s a great feeling to be a world away and be able to take a breath and finally have some rest.”
“I slept out in the plane, just to be with everything that was left. I just didn’t want to let it go. People on the street were offering me places to stay but I just couldn’t leave the airplane knowing that was all that was left. It took a little bit of time to try and absorb it all.”
While it was a crew house he’d only been in for a few days that burnt down, Fort McMurray is still home to Fras for half the year and he plans to continue to make it home. “For me it’s about rebuilding and keeping moving forward, we’re gonna pick up the pieces, Fort Mac has been my second home since 2006,” he said, eager to get back to work.
He said after a tense night watching his company’s hangar in a live weather webcam, it survived and appears ready to be put to use helping rebuild the area.
“Your home is one thing, but flying, for us, is not just a job we do, especially for my boss, he puts his heart and soul into that company. He lives a very modest lifestyle in a small home but he makes sure that everyone has access to aviation. He’s had that company for 31 years and his primary focus has always been the people in the north because aviation is a lifeline up here, it’s how you get around — Fort McMurray is the end of the road.”
“So when we saw the hangar still there, the planes are still there, it means there’s hope for us to be able to service the communities.”
Fras is worried about the long-term impact on the city, which was already suffering through an economic downturn, and he’s worried about discoveries of people who didn’t actually make it out of danger’s way, despite public assurances. He suggested the best thing for people who want to help, is to donate to the Red Cross, which will get matching government funds and is best suited to distribute resources.
“I feel like I’m coming out of this unscathed compared to what other people are going through.”