For Steven Auty, his family and two dogs, the overnight escape from a burning Fort McMurray was through a firestorm, on a jammed highway where all lanes were heading south, then complicated by an empty gasoline tank somewhere in Alberta’s sparsely populated north.
The family eventually found fuel for their truck and shelter in a work camp at 4 a.m. on Wednesday.
Auty counted his blessings, though he was unsure what would come next.
“We have food for a day,” he said in a phone interview while walking his dogs Wednesday, as his exhausted wife rested, and his daughter and her boyfriend, both oilsands workers, continued the trek south. “We have enough fuel to head to Edmonton or (the hamlet of) Lac La Biche. I am not sure what my options are.”
A recently retired Syncrude Canada Ltd. employee, Auty, 62, had spent the previous day watching smoke and flames quickly approach Fort McMurry, burning down familiar buildings.
Sirens were screaming at people in some communities to get out. Police were going door to door. Buildings were engulfed in flames, as were the banks of the Athabasca River.
Oilsands production shutdown from Fort McMurray wildfire another blow to sectorMainstreet Equity offers 100 apartment units to victims of Fort McMurray fire
But his house, in Prospect Point, seemed safe, and so were the rental properties he had acquired over the years.
By 9:30 p.m. he too was ordered to leave, and with his family joined the river of cars and trucks searching for safe ground. As he drove away, he noticed Fort McMurray’s downtown was still intact.
It gave him hope.
The camp that took the family in, called Moose Haven Lodge near Conklin and owned by the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, is one of many that are providing shelter to evacuees.
“The irony is that the debate in Fort McMurray was that we don’t want more camp, because it’s fly in and fly out and all the money leaves town, and the taxes leave town,” Auty said.
“And we have 30 and 40 per cent vacancy in our apartments (because of the oil downturn). I had to drop my rent and I am just barely breaking even. But today we like the camps, because they are helping us out.”
Auty worries about Fort McMurray’s future. He moved to the town from Toronto in 1977, hoping to save enough money to buy a farm.
Those people who work at the plants, wherever they were, are going to be struggling for a while.
He started at Syncrude as a mechanic and eventually moved into major projects. Then oil prices collapsed and there were no new projects to build. He retired last year.
“Those people who work at the plants, wherever they were, are going to be struggling for a while,” he said. “We are going to need help, for sure.”
An estimated 80,000 people like Auty and his family were ordered to evacuate Fort McMurray this week.
More than 250 firefighters, helicopters and air tankers were fighting the fire Wednesday, and the Canadian Forces were assisting with transportation. Alberta Transportation was escorting a fuel tanker along Highway 63 to assist stranded motorists. The government of Alberta has declared a provincial state of emergency.