Evacuees fear having to leave Fort McMurray permanently

There's an agonizing feeling weighing on the tens of thousands of evacuees now scattered across Alberta — uncertainty about how much life has changed and frustration that there is nothing to do but wait.

Energy workers already uncertain about their jobs now worry about homes

An evacuee from the Fort McMurray wildfires checks his smartphone as he rests at a shelter on Friday in Lac la Biche, Alta. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

There's an agonizing feeling weighing on the tens of thousands of evacuees now scattered across Alberta — uncertainty about how much life has changed and frustration that there is nothing to do but wait.

Kim McGregor and Cory Sammann consider themselves lucky, which is remarkable because they don't know if their house in Fort McMurray is still standing and they don't know when they might be able to go back to work.

"To see a city destroyed like that, in a matter of a few days, is just mind boggling," Sammann said.

They say they feel fortunate because they are now sharing a one-room log cabin with their cats at Christina Lake, near Conklin, Alta., where they spend a great deal of time on their porch, constantly refreshing their smartphones.

They are eager to know how big the fire is growing and what areas of the city burned since they fled down Highway 63 on Tuesday.

Kim McGregor, left, and Corey Sammann are staying at a one-room cabin at Christina Lake, near Conklin, Alta. McGregor says she's afraid to return home to see exactly what the massive wildfire has destroyed. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

It was an experience they describe as apocalyptic and traumatizing.  

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"I am scared to go back. I am scared to see it. It was devastating," McGregor said.

She does administration work for energy companies in the city, and her husband works at one of the oilsands sites to the north.

They have lived in the city for decades as Fort McMurray grew from what they described as commuter town to a community.

Evacuee Clieo Wendel, who was escorted through Fort McMurray after being stranded north of the city today, holds a gas can as she helps her family pack a trailer in Wandering River, Alta. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Shut down, scale back

But now, they fear the opportunities in Fort McMurray are gone, because a big part of the town has been destroyed and oil and gas companies have shut down and scaled back further.

"Production is cut right off," he said.

The young couple was already considering a move because of the downturn, and say the wildfire likely solidified their decision.

"What do we restart from? I think it is going to force a lot to leave. Our population is going to shrink," Samman said.

Fort McMurray has experienced thousands of layoffs since the price of oil plunged. People who had been struggling to find work are now also looking for a place to stay.

Keilal Brown moved to Fort McMurray from Newfoundland seven years ago, and her entire family built their life around the city and its jobs in the energy industry.

Last year, her boyfriend got laid off.

"We were six months without work," she said, while scanning the mostly empty shelves at a corner store in Conklin. "We just got back on our feet, so now it is a new start."

But a new start where? She has been told 15 homes on her street have been destroyed, as have 13 in her boyfriend's neighbourhood.

Still she tries to remain optimistic.

"We just got to not worry about and take every day for it is. Our family is all out safe. If we have to move, we will move."

Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires look through donated supplies at a shelter in Lac la Biche, Alta., on Friday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

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Briar Stewart

Foreign correspondent

Briar Stewart is CBC's Russia correspondent, currently based in London. During her nearly two decades with CBC, she has reported across Canada and internationally. She can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on X @briarstewart