Plagued by PTSD, some evacuees leave fire-ravaged Fort McMurray behind

Even witnessing the ravages of war left Ken Carpenter unprepared for the devastation of the Fort McMurray wildfire.

'We were happy, and when all this happened it kind of throws a loop into everything'

Smoke and flames from the wildfire erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alta., in May 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Even witnessing the ravages of war left Ken Carpenter unprepared for the devastation of the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Watching the flames decimate his northern Alberta community sent the former soldier spiralling into a dark episode of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological scars left by deployments in Bosnia and to the front lines of the Oka crisis were, once again, made raw.

"I was very on edge," said Carpenter. "Very short with my temper. And some people with PTSD, things seem bleak … and that's how I see things."

The May 2016 fire, which became known as "The Beast" for its merciless unpredictability, destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings and caused the largest evacuation in Alberta history. In a few frantic hours, more than 80,000 people fled as flames devoured homes and flanked the only highway out of the city.

RAW: Video of Fort McMurray fire as it approaches the city

5 years ago
Taken in the afternoon on Tuesday, the fire threatens the city of Fort McMurray. 1:21

Even after the fire was brought under control and residents were allowed to return, the city remained a menacing place for Carpenter.

After 3½ years in the northern Alberta community, he and his wife, Wanda, decided to start over in the Maritimes.

"Before the fire, we were pretty comfortable," he said. "Things were looking pretty decent. We had a nice little apartment. You know, we were happy. And when all this happened, it kind of throws a loop into everything.

"I think we will get where we need to be eventually, but it just takes time."  

'The ash was coming down'

Carpenter's dark thoughts first resurfaced on May 3, as the wildfire roared into the city. He had been working nights as a truck driver, and woke up mid-afternoon in his downtown apartment, disoriented by darkened windows.

His wife, just home from work, told him to look outside. The sunless sky was a black wall of smoke. Flames cast a suffocating orange haze over the horizon to the west.

After more than three years in Fort McMurray, Ken and Wanda Carpenter decided to move back to the Maritimes after the wildfire. (Ken Carpenter)

The couple packed a few belongings, their cats and a tank of betta fish into their car and joined the long snake of vehicles clogging Highway 63. By the end of the day, the city was a ghost town. By the end of the week, 2,400 homes and buildings had been destroyed.

The Carpenters made it out of the city minutes before the encroaching inferno enveloped a swath of highway, forcing a line of vehicles to retreat and turn north.

"The flames and propane tanks exploding the trailer park — you could feel the heat through the windows," Carpenter said. "And the ash was coming down.

"As soon as we got out, they closed the highway behind us."

After seven gruelling hours, they made it to safety, and were soon offered a trailer in the woods outside Athabasca as temporary lodgings. Carpenter went on short-term disability and sought counselling, but in the weeks that followed, it became clear that he was struggling.

Traffic lines the highway as residents leave Fort McMurray on May 3, 2016. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

The sight of scorched earth, entire neighbourhoods reduced to ashen skeletons, made him feel helpless. 

When he lost his job a few weeks later, there was no reason to stay in Fort McMurray.

Even now, the smell of smoke or the sight of a lit cigarette flung from a car window puts him on edge.

"It was hard decision, but I felt that for Ken's mental well-being, that this was probably the place he needed to be," Wanda Carpenter said from their new apartment in Dartmouth, N.S.

"I mean, it was pretty scary to watch him go through some of things he went through. And I know, even myself, I had some nightmares."

It's estimated that one-third of evacuees will suffer from PTSD. Flashbacks, sleeplessness, irritability, anger and other mental health traumas could be recurring symptoms for those who survived the disaster.

It's unclear how many have left Fort McMurray for good because of mental health concerns. But Wanda Carpenter knows they're not alone in their decision.

'It just pulls off the scab'

The wildfire happened at a time when the city was already struggling with a bust in oil prices and staggering job losses.

For many, "The Beast" was a breaking point.

While 88,000 people evacuated from the city, authorities estimate only about 73,000 have since returned, suggesting a loss of one-sixth of the population.

Most vehicles and homes in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood were destroyed. (Sylvain Bascaron/Radio-Canada)

Wanda Carpenter can't help but think about those who stayed behind to "struggle through it."

"I know it can't be easy for the people that are there, especially coming up on the one-year anniversary," she said. "I'm sure it's going to be a constant reminder.

"It just pulls off the scab and you have to experience it all over again. I'm sure a lot of people are dealing with the same things we dealt with. And we were lucky. We really were."

After putting her career on hold, leaving friends and co-workers behind, she has managed to find a silver lining.

The wildfire created a kind of generosity she didn't know was possible.

As the anniversary approaches, the Carpenters will push their dark thoughts aside to think about the resilience of fellow evacuees and the people who helped them.

"It was really amazing that complete strangers were being so generous. It's hard to say why things like that happen, but some good does come out it."

"It's easy to get caught up in the depression and the bad stuff. But you have to think about the good things, too."