If your house caught fire and you could save only one thing, what would it be?
It's a question most of us have been asked at one point or another – one so common that entire books have been filled with answers to it.
Hypothetically, the choice is a tough one. In reality, you may not get a choice at all.
More than 80,000 Canadians were forced to leave their homes and belongings behind last week as wildfire spread to Fort McMurray, Alta. and surrounding areas.
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With as little as minutes to prepare to leave their homes, residents fled without hesitation when a mandatory evacuation order was issued on Tuesday – but many still don't know what will be left of their houses, jobs and already-struggling community when they return.
The wildfire has already destroyed more than 1,600 homes and buildings by the most-recent estimates, and conditions remain extreme despite incredible efforts to combat it.
Alberta's government committed $100 million in emergency funding to those displaced by the fire last week, and images of flames raging in Fort McMurray have inspired an outpouring of donations from people worldwide through the Canadian Red Cross.
Sadly, however, money can't bring back everything lost so far.
Chantal Giroux-Boutin, a resident of the hard-hit Beacon Hill neighbourhood, says her beloved terrier died as they escaped the wildfire. "He was stressed out. He hyperventilated and he had a stroke," she told CBC News. "He's with us in the car, on ice... We are going to bury him in Edmonton."
Fort McMurray resident Duane Brooks came out of retirement without a single day off from his job as an electrician to help set up camps in Lac La Biche for those fleeing the wildfire. Crews are working to place dozens of mobile homes on land that was donated to relief efforts by the Calgary-based company Black Diamond Group.
Flames were consuming what was left of the Centennial Trailer Park on Tuesday when residents Joanne Bates and John Davidson spoke to CBC News. "Everything I worked for the last two years, it's all gone," said Davidson of his home, vehicles and snowmobiles. "It's probably all blown away now."
Rodney Gosse is currently staying with his wife, two kids and more than 2,000 other evacuees at a convention centre in downtown Edmonton. The family is sleeping on faux-leather couches in the bustling, volunteer-packed hub until a more permanent shelter can be found. "I want to leave the best accommodations for the parents with young children," Gosse told CBC's Lucas Powers. "That's not easy."
Emily Ryan, 15, and her 19-year-old cousin, Aaron Hodgson, were travelling on Highway 881 Wednesday afternoon along with many others trying to get away from the wildfire. Just outside of Lac La Biche, their SUV collided with a tractor-trailer. Both were killed on the scene.
It was "absolute mad craziness" in Abasand on Tuesday for Julie Lodge, who had moved to Fort McMurray from Newfoundland about six years ago. Among the surreal things she witnessed while driving through hours of smoky traffic was a woman saving three horses from the fire at once, "just galloping through town."
Élise Boissonneault was getting ready to leave her home in Fort McMurray to get married in Toronto when evacuation orders were issued. Her wedding gown was being altered at a seamstress's house and there wasn't enough time to grab it before fleeing. After hearing of her story, more than 100 dresses were offered to the bride through Facebook, as well as other free services like hairstyling and jewelry. Boissonneault was married as planned on Saturday in Toronto.
Volunteer firefighters from the First Nations and Métis communities of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan described what it's been like to battle the "beast" in Fort McMurray, in an interview Sunday. "I couldn't believe what we had been through," said Fort McKay deputy fire Chief Ron Quintal. "What I had just saw. I saw an entire city on fire."
Erica Decker and her husband fled Fort McMurray with their young daughter, Piper, on Tuesday. With flames just metres from her house in Beacon Hill, Decker hurried to pack what she could – but was forced to leave behind a trove of baby pictures, intricate painted portraits, and a chest filled with letters from family and friends. "By the time we left, our lawn was on fire," she told CBC's Wallis Snowdon. "It was just feet away from our front door."
Fleeing home as massive wildfires rage all around can be as stressful for animals as it is for people – and with a limited number of hotels that are willing to accept pets, they can be hard to find comfortable shelter for. Inside the evacuation centre in Lac La Biche, Alta., there is a shelter within a shelter taking care of dozens of cats, dogs and even chickens for grateful evacuees.
Tamara Wolfe, also from Beacon Hill, has no doubt her home of eight years is gone. "It's not the brand new kitchen that we just renovated. It's not even the house," she said Wednesday. "It's my grandparents' antiques and the china and the silver from their wedding that I'll never get back."