Park planned in memory of girl who died during Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation

Emily Ryan died in a fiery crash while she was fleeing the wildfire in Fort McMurray last May. Her family has come up with ways to remember their daughter.

Family has raised $16K from donations all over Canada

Emily Ryan (second from left) on the day of her parents' wedding. (Supplied by family)

A new park is planned in memory of a young woman who was killed while fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfire last spring. 

Emily Ryan, 15, died in head-on collision during the mass evacuation of the city and surrounding communities. Aaron Hodgson, 19, her stepmother's nephew, was also killed in the crash. 

The pair were in an SUV that collided with a tractor-trailer on Highway 881 on May 4. They both died at the scene. 

Emily's father and stepmother want to use the funds they've received since her death to build a park in her memory, they said in emotional interviews with CBC News,

"Her life and weekends have been campfires and the outdoors," stepmother Melonie Matthews-Ryan said. "It started out as something we as a family thought was an important way to capture Emily's spirit in the nature and outdoors."

The wildfire forced 88,000 people to flee the northern Alberta city and surrounding communities. Panicked drivers jammed clogged streets and highways while embers rained down from trees, exploding at the side of the road.

Emily's father, Cranley Ryan, a deputy chief with the Wood Buffalo fire department, was battling May's wildfire when he heard his daughter had died in a car crash. (David Thurton/CBC)

During those frenzied two days, Emily and Aaron moved from one Fort McMurray subdivision to another. They fled to a nearby town where all the hotel rooms were full. The pair slept in the car.

Eventually they made it to Conklin, 150 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, where volunteers welcomed them with a barbecue.

"The people of Conklin were like, 'Come. Pull in here. We've got food, we've got water,' " Cranley Ryan, Emily's father, said.

" 'We don't know how long it's been since you had a break.' "

Not much sleep

When his daughter and Aaron finally left Conklin, they were part of a convoy heading down Highway 881. Someone in another car saw their SUV drift into the oncoming lane.

"We think [Aaron] just fell asleep after all that excitement. They hadn't had much sleep," Ryan said.

A truck burns beside Highway 881 after a collision with an SUV carrying Emily Ryan and Aaron Hodgson. (Stephen Barkley)

Lac La Biche RCMP said the SUV collided with a semi-trailer truck carrying rail ties near the Heart Lake First Nation.

The crash ignited a massive fire, visible kilometres away, which closed the highway. The investigation into the crash is over. 

Although no one died during the wildfire, many in Fort McMurray consider Emily and Aaron casualties of one of Canada's largest evacuations.

Over the last eight months, the Ryan family has received cheques and messages of support from the public. Initially they thought about using the money to build a reading bench.

Smoke from the crash could be seen from kilometres away, a witness said. (Stephen Barkley)

"We didn't know where the limit was going to be," Matthews-Ryan said, "And the more donations that we get in, we realize the park gets to be even better than we could even imagine it being."

The family has received $16,000 to date and businesses have promised more.

Ryan admits he knows nothing about engineering a park and many of the details need to be worked out.

Family and friends hope the park will be in the Fort McMurray community of Beacon Hill, one of the areas hardest hit by the fire. Ryan and his five children also went to the school there.

In February, he hopes to form a committee with the municipality to turn their ideas into reality

Working through the pain

Projects like the park are helping Ryan and his wife work through their pain.

Emily's birthday on Dec. 1, which she shared with her triplet siblings, was especially tough. 

"The day started out being very difficult," Ryan said, "I was having quite a time dealing with this."

They celebrated anyway.

"You get focused on doing other tasks and you get so much support from people that show up," Ryan said.

He welcomes distractions like these because it's a reminder life continues.

"You've got to push through. It's not always the easiest."