Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees inundate Edmonton airport

Mother of two Amanda Visschar, who has asthma, says the smoke in wildfire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Alta., was so bad that she fainted in her husband's arms at Edmonton's airport. The family was among hundreds of people taking flights yesterday, part of an evacuation order affecting tens of thousands of people.

Edmonton International Airport expecting thousands as wildfire fight continues

Evacuees fleeing the wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., took to Edmonton International Airport with pets and any other belongings they managed to pack. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Hundreds of people fleeing Fort McMurray, Alta., arrived at Edmonton International Airport yesterday to take flights out of the wildfire zone following an evacuation order.

Airport officials say they expect thousands more as fire officials work to contain the massive blaze.

"It's pretty challenging," said Traci Bednard, EIA's vice-president of passenger market demand.

"There's just uncertainty about when their lives would even return back to normal, and we know it's going to continue on. It's upsetting."

Bednard said staff will work round the clock to co-ordinate flights and direct evacuees onto shuttle buses headed for Northlands centre. A crew of workers and volunteers rotated through one corner of the airport, to welcome evacuees with coffee and pastries. 

Meanwhile, flight arrival times remained erratic as fire conditions changed throughout Wednesday, painting the arrivals board in alternating swaths of red and green.
Flights from Fort McMurray to Edmonton remained erratic as fire conditions changed on Wednesday. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Commercial airline service from Fort McMurray stopped or a few hours when flights were suspended. Other airlines, such as Canadian North, stepped in to help with evacuations. 

Amanda Visschar and her family managed to fly out of Fort McMurray just before those cancellations.

Visschar and her two toddlers all have asthma, while her husband has a history of pulmonary embolisms — blockage of an artery in the lungs. Visschar said the smoke made it so difficult to breathe that she fainted in her husband's arms shortly before boarding their flight.

"It was a traumatic experience," Visschar said. "I'm just lucky that we all got out alive ... As long as we got out alive, everything can be replaced."
Amanda Visschar and her two toddlers were among hundreds of Fort McMurray evacuees at Edmonton airport Wednesday. She said she and her children have asthma, and the smoke made it difficult for them to breathe. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Visschar said she doesn't know what happened to her home. The family piled into a car with half a tank of gas and their aptly named dog, Lucky, on Tuesday and started driving. They ended up in a workers' camp outside the city, before being evacuated by air.

"It doesn't even seem real at this point," she said. "Everything we have is gone. It's going to be gone."

Visschar wasn't the only one travelling with children and animals.

Danielle Schwank and her partner, Mark Greenwood, said they only had five minutes to load two dogs and one-year-old Declan into their truck. They tried leaving Fort McMurray by road, but said the wildfire blocked their path.

It was almost like a movie. That's the only way to explain it, it was like the apocalypse.- Danielle Schwank, Fort McMurray evacuee

"It was almost like a movie. That's the only way to explain it, it was like the apocalypse," Schwank said.

"There's vehicles broken down on the side of the road. People are walking, people are out of gas. It's plus 33 out. It's smoky, red haze. It would have been a really cool picture had it not been for the reason for it. It's just unreal."
Danielle Schwank said she and her partner, Marc Greenwood, had just five minutes to load two dogs and one-year-old Declan into their truck before leaving Fort McMurray. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Schwank said the support she received along the way almost brought her to tears.

For evacuee Frank LeBlanc, that same support prompted a grin. He walked through the arrivals gate to see Timbits and coffee. 

"We know we're still in Canada," he joked, before turning serious as he recalled the evacuation.

"There was pushing and shoving and I even seen some grown men crying because they don't know what's going to happen. It was a hard situation to be in."

LeBlanc left with a group of workers who cleared their camp to make room for Fort McMurray families. Jeff Besso was on the same flight and said he passed a sleepless night as the camps became chaotic.

Our eyes were burning and ash fell down on you like snow.- Jeff Besso, Fort McMurray evacuee

"It was getting pretty crazy. Once the fire started getting close, people started to panic and worry. Nobody knew what was going on or if we were getting out," Besso said. 

"It's just girls crying, full-grown men starting to get scared and panic, especially seeing as it was raining ash down on us, and smoke ... We were standing outside, our eyes were burning and ash fell down on you like snow."

Commercial flights out of Fort McMurray resumed in the late afternoon, reuniting evacuees with friends and family who had been waiting at Edmonton's airport for hours.

Jeanette Effler said she felt complete relief when her partner, Don Davidge, walked through the gate.
Jeanette Effler said she felt relieved when her partner, Don Davidge, walked through the gate at the airport. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

"I don't think either one of us really slept last night, just staying in contact with each other and making sure that he was still coming home," she said.

The two shared a tearful embrace in the midst of a crowd of evacuees. Davidge, who works in Fort McMurray, said he was "just so tired and happy to see her.

"It's just so hard to see the families up there coming into the camps," he added, his arm still around Effler.

"In the middle of the night, little kids with their teddy bears ... and they don't really know what's going on why they've got to go to this big place in the middle of nowhere. It was tough, so when you get back to see family you know what it means.

They're pretty strong people, so hopefully the damage wasn't too bad and they can get on with their lives.- Don Davidge, Fort McMurray evacuee

"They're pretty strong people, so hopefully the damage wasn't too bad and they can get on with their lives."