Fort McMurray family flees city with flames at their heels
'We're all clinging to this hope that we have something to return to. But we just don't know'
Some things can never be replaced.
Like the tiny house Erica Decker and her husband bought when they found out she was pregnant with their child, a daughter named Piper.
A treasure chest of letters her family and friends wrote on the day of her baby shower, notes meant to be opened on Piper's 16th birthday.
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Baby pictures. Intricate portraits she painted on the walls of her daughter's room.
All reduced to ashes.
"We know it's just stuff, but it was stuff that we had planned to give her in the future. Memories and keepsakes and things that were a part of her life, that we wanted her to have."
When a massive wildfire ripped through Fort McMurray on Tuesday afternoon, the Beacon Hill neighbourhood was hit hard and Decker's home burned to the ground.
Now safe in an Edmonton hotel room with her husband and her child, she wonders what's left of the neighbourhood she called home for three years.
"We're trying to keep it together for our kids. My daughter, she keeps looking at me and saying, 'Mommy, don't be scared,' because she doesn't understand what's going on. And I'm just trying so hard to keep it together for her."
Decker said her daughter is too young to understand the gravity of the loss.
We're trying to keep it together for our kids. My daughter she keeps looking at me and saying, 'Mommy, don't be scared' because she doesn't understand what's going on.- Erica Decker
"People don't understand how hard it is to explain to a two-year-old that they can't play with their dolls, because they don't exist anymore, and that they can't go to their room, because it's not there anymore."
"She's been crying for her room. Crying for her toys. She just can't grasp it. And it rips us apart."
'We're all numb'
Decker and her family were among the tens of thousands of people forced to flee when the fire raged into the city.
Scorching temperatures and sudden high winds stoked the flames, and gave residents little time to escape.
Decker was at work in the Gregoire industrial park when a blanket of smoke clouded the horizon.
"We started to see the smoke rising, and within minutes it gained ferocity, and the whole skyline was black and orange."
Panicked, she rushed home to evacuate.
"I could see the fire through the treeline, and I got into my driveway and there was debris the size of baseballs falling all around me on fire. It was apocalyptic."
She ran inside to pack what she could, the flames metres from the house.
"By the time we left, our lawn was on fire," she said. "It was just feet away from our front door."
Decker and her family got out of Beacon Hill, and made their way out of the city.
"I can't believe we managed to get out, if we had been a few minutes longer, we wouldn't have."
I can't believe we managed to get out, if we had been a few minutes longer, we wouldn't have.- Ericka Decker
Decker said the need to be strong for her daughter has kept her going through the loss of her home, her livelihood, and most of her family's belongings.
"It's absolutely devastating. It's been beyond hard. We're all numb. We're all living with this false sense that there's something to go back to."
With much of Fort McMurray in ruins, the family is headed back to Deer Lake, N.L., to stay at what was meant to be their retirement home.
Though her husband, Steven Pearce, will likely return to work in the oilsands one day, Decker doesn't think she'll ever call Alberta home again.
"I don't think I'll ever come back" she said. "There is nothing here for me to return for."