As far as he knows, he's the last man in wildfire-stricken Fort McMurray
‘I’m not a daredevil,’ says longtime resident who protected his Alberta house with a garden hose
As trees exploded just across the highway, Hartley Bushell stood on his lawn, hose in hand, ready to fight for his house.
Cars and trucks streamed by. The flames reached over 21 metres into the sky.
But Bushell held his ground.
More than a week later, he's still there, still holding his little piece of ground.
As far as Bushell knows, aside from first responders, he's the last man in Fort McMurray, Alta.
RCMP don't condone staying
Bushell, 63, said RCMP have confronted him at least two dozen times, asking him to leave the city. His wife, Chalinee, also begged him to go, before she eventually decided to leave herself.
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Police don't have the authority to make Bushell leave, but say his presence puts his safety and that of first responders at risk.
But he said he doesn't feel unsafe, and he's not not going anywhere.
"This is not just a house we have here," he said. "This is our home."
On May 3, RCMP ordered the mandatory evacuation of the entire city, and some 80,000 people fled a wildfire that consumed entire neighbourhoods.
Bushell, a longtime resident, said he was determined not to let that fire touch even a blade of grass near his home.
He did not want to leave only to return and find rubble where his wife's cherished flower garden used to be.
On evacuation day, a house around the corner from his street caught fire. But so far, nothing but debris has hit his yard, or those of his neighbours.
"It was well worth the fight," he said. "That's why I've stayed and I'll continue to stay."
Loneliness is the biggest problem
It has been a few days since Bushell has felt the fire's heat. He spends his days gardening, and keeping his yard wet and an eye on the sky.
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Police won't say if there are other residents who have refused to leave, only that Bushell is likely not the only one.
But Bushell said as far as he knows, he's alone. And loneliness has become the hardest part.
"My wife and I are very close," he said. "I do miss her a lot."
On Monday, Premier Rachel Notley announced a schedule for when residents can return will be released in about two weeks. It will be at least that long before Bushell has much company.
For a time, he had a temporary companion.
He was driving through the debris of Waterways to gather a friend's treasured photos and documents. He said the area was deserted and still smouldering. Some buildings were on fire.
He heard a whimpering sound, and found a little pug and brought him home.
"I thought, 'I cannot leave that little fella here,'" he said.
He contacted the owners and found out the pup is named P.J. The two quickly became friends. Bushell said he would talk to the dog, and P.J. would bark back.
"He's really quite a little darling."
On Tuesday, he gave P.J. to the animal rescue authorities to return him to his rightful family, who have been forced to leave and went to Edmonton.
Bushell said rescuing the pup has been the most gratifying part of his lonely stay in Fort McMurray.
'I'm not a daredevil'
Still, he plans to stay to help rebuild the city he loves.
He has everything he needs in his home, he said, including water, food and electricity. But he's trying to be careful.
"I've done some fairly adventurous things in my life, but I'm also not anxious to leave this world," he said.
He has an escape route planned, in case conditions take a turn for the worse, and he's prepared to bolt if there's any chance he'll be incinerated.
"I'm not a daredevil."
Bushell knows no one will be able to return until police and firefighters deem the city safe. There are still large portions of the city that have no electricity, no gas, no water.
Police still want Bushell to leave. But he insists he and the first responders are on the same side.
"Just keeping the fort tight, that's what I've been doing."