Edmonton

Sled dog puppies named in honour of Fort McMurray fire victims, heroes after daring escape

A wriggling litter of six new husky pups will forever bear the name of the fire which threatened to take their mother's life.

Christina Traverse escaped Fort McMurray with 34 dogs, a cat and a raven

This dog was named Darby Allen in honour of the Fort McMurray fire chief. (Mush McMurray )

A wriggling litter of six new husky pups will forever bear the name of the fire which threatened to take their mother's life.

Mama delivered the pups days after more than 90,000 Fort McMurray residents were forced to flee for their lives. What would have been their safe haven — a dog yard for 30 of their fellow sled dogs — was destroyed amid the flames. 

Haze, Ember, Ash and Blaze were first into the world, followed by Darby Allen, a black and white spotted male named in honour of the affable Fort McMurray fire chief. 

And then Emily, named after Emily Ryan, the 15-year-old girl who died in a vehicle crash on Highway 881, during the panicked evacuation. 

Christina Traverse decided on the names, as she watched her hometown burn.

"When the fire broke out, I knew I wanted to make this litter special," said Traverse.
Christina Traverse has been dog-sled racing for several years, competing in races like the Yukon Quest, the Canadian Challenge. (Mush McMurray )
"Even before she (the mother) had them, I knew what names I wanted for them. It just made sense, especially for me, because my dogs are my world." 

Traverse and her team of sled dogs are more accustomed to racing across icy tundras than riding through a raging inferno. But when the flames hit, there was no way she was leaving them behind.

As the flames approached her dog sledding facility on the southeastern edge of the city, Traverse, knew something was amiss.

Even though the evacuation orders were still hours away, Traverse and her family hitched up the trailer to the back of her Ford and got to work dealing with their brood of animals.

In all, there were 30 sled dogs, a motley crew of four "house" dogs, a cat and, not to be forgotten, an injured raven Traverse had recently discovered in the woods.

"It had a broken wing and she was really lethargic, and I couldn't let her die, because that's just not who I am," said Traverse. 

"So when the fire broke out, we threw the kennel in the trailer, and put her in there with the dogs."

Fort McMurray musher Christina Traverse has a team of 30 huskies she keeps at an expansive dog-run on the edge of Fort McMurray. (Mush McMurray)
 

By the time Traverse made it back to her house, the neighbourhood was swarming with police officers. The evacuation orders had been issued, and she only had a few minutes to pack up her personal belongings.

Her mind was swimming. 

"It was a surreal moment. Standing there in my room thinking, there is a good chance this is going to burn to the ground. What am I willing to leave behind?"  Traverse said. "I basically grabbed my dirty laundry off the floor, threw it in a bag and left." 

They spent the next few days at MacDonald Island Park, where Traverse and her dogs took refuge in tents on the grass behind the emergency evacuation centre.

Then, two days later, as Traverse looked out across the river, the sky turned black with thick ash and plumes of smoke shot up across the horizon.

'I just sat there and cried'

Within minutes, security guards were running toward them, telling them to get out — and fast.

"I was sitting on top my truck, staring out at Beaconhill and Gregoire, and I saw it basically explode," Traverse recalled. "I sat there, for what felt like for a few hours but I'm sure it was only a few minutes. I just sat there and cried as I watched everything burn. 

"It was probably the most depressing moment of my life." 

They were told to head north. But as Traverse watched the flames jump the highway, she wondered how she would ever escape the fire with 30 dogs, if the highway closed for good.

She felt trapped.

Fearing the worst, they headed south on the highway, and were one of the last vehicles to be granted access through the still burning city.

They met up with some family north of the city, and by the time they hit the road the entourage included 12 people, 35 dogs, a cat and a bird in three vehicles.

Like driving through war zone

Traverse said it was like driving through a war zone. 

"I was born and raised in Fort McMurray, so I was basically watching my hometown burn to the ground. It was really hard." 

And the whole time, she worried about how her dogs were coping with the heat, the smoke and the stress. Her biggest concern was with Mama, who was pregnant with her first litter of pups.
After escaping Fort McMurray, Mama the husky is now a proud mother to six healthy puppies. (Mush McMurray )

"I could tell, near the end, she was getting stressed, because she was in a kennel,  but it wasn't her home, and she was looking for a safe place to have her puppies which she couldn't find," said Traverse. "I was very concerned about her. But overall,  she handled it like a champ."

After being taken in by an Edmonton veterinary clinic, Mama went into labour. And after hours of difficult labour, the puppies made their entry into the world by early morning.

"I stayed up with her all night so I was exhausted, but I was so happy that all the pups were okay."

Traverse's dogs are being cared for by fellow mushers across the Edmonton area. It could be months before Traverse is able to restore her dog-run, and they're all able to return to Fort McMurray.

Even now, Traverse said she still hears sirens, still smells smoke, and the sight of a passing fire truck makes her feel sick. 

But her dogs carried her through the tragedy. 

"Most of my day was consumed with the dogs, so I didn't have time to think about what was happening," said Traverse. "At night was the worst, because I would try to go to sleep, and I'd be thinking about the fire, but during the day it was all about the dogs.

"I'm thankful that I was able to get my dogs out, and that I was able to focus on them, and not be consumed by what happened." 
(Mush McMurray )