Nfld. & Labrador

'A lot of Newfoundland spirit here,' as people flee Fort McMurray fires

A St. John's man living in Fort McMurray says the only bright spot in the wildfire that has caused a mass evacuation is that there are no injuries or fatalities as of Wednesday morning.

'There's been no death, no injury, so that's the main thing,' says Bob Groves, evacuated from Thickwood

A woman seen galloping on horseback through downtown Fort McMurray Tuesday, fleeing a wildfire that's caused a mandatory evacuation. (Submitted by Julie Lodge)

A St. John's man living in Fort McMurray says the only bright spot in the wildfire that has caused the entire Alberta community to evacuate is that no injuries or fatalities have been reported as of Wednesday morning.

The fire raging in the Fort McMurray area forced officials to evacuate 60,000 inhabitants.

Bob Groves was at work at Suncor when he heard over the radio his Fort McMurray community of Thickwood was being evacuted.

His son and girlfriend were at his home, so he left work as fast as he could to collect them and flee, as a wall of smoke and flames continued to spread in the region.

"The way the fire is going so far, it's not looking too promising. It took over Beacon Hill tonight and Gregoire, Abasand and Grayling Terrace, so I don't have much hope for my home, to be honest," Groves told CBC's St. John's Morning Show Wednesday.

"It's unreal, it's taken us all by storm. A lot people have a lot more than me and they're losing a lot more, so it hurts. But you know what, we all have our family, there's been no death, no injury, so that's the main thing."

If I lose everything, I'll get back up again.- Bob Groves

Groves and his family were later able to get through the highway heading south from Fort McMurray.

"I kind of just made a run for it because I knew I had a camper down in Anzac and I would have rather stayed there and know at any point I could tow away my camper if evacuated," he said.

"It's a shame to say but at the time I was thinking it was quite possibly the only thing I had left, other than the truck I was in."

An emotional Jenny Brown, originally from Griquet, called in to Crosstalk to describe escaping Fort McMurray's wildfire with her two young daughters. 5:53

Meanwhile, Groves wanted to tell his family in Newfoundland and Labrador that he's safe.

"I was never gonna leave my family unsafe. If I lose everything, I'll get back up again, but we all know how hard the people in Fort McMurray work and I'm no different," said Groves.

"I hope as many people up here [as possible] have more of a positive outcome than a negative, and we all deserve to keep all our hard-earned things. Be strong for me, because I'm strong for you."

'Driving on the sidewalks'

Jenny Brown, from Griquet, told CBC Wednesday that she was stuck in traffic outside Wandering River — two hours south of Fort McMurray — in an attempt to get to Edmonton.

Brown and her two daughters, eight and five, are travelling with her, while her husband is in a separate vehicle.

In the hurry to get out of the burning city, Brown said she hasn't eaten or slept in 26 hours.

"I've seen more accidents coming from the lodge, coming out to here [Edmonton], than I've ever seen in my life," Brown told CBC's CrossTalk Wednesday afternoon.

"They were driving on the sidewalks, crossing the medians, going in the other lanes trying to get out as fast as they can. I saw a camper flipped over on the highway."

Brown said her husband was in the Thickwood subdivison and stuck in traffic for over two hours — long enough for him to think about turning around to get his ATV so he could bypass the traffic.

'Just absolute mass craziness'

People are packing up and leaving the area as flames grow in the industrial area south Fort McMurray. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Julie Lodge, who is from Catalina, had just returned to Fort McMurray in the beginning of April, where she lived for six years before going to Kelowna, B.C.

While her young son is at home in Newfoundland with her family, Lodge said she's been sad to see their home community of six years go up in flames.

"It was pretty heartbreaking because I called Abasand home for six years of my life and that's where I built a life for myself and my son. It was pretty hard to watch, even just talking about it is pretty emotional," she said.

Lodge and her roommate fled their home Tuesday afternoon, as smoke quickly descended on Abasand. Now at Blacksands Camp, Lodge recounted a harrowing attempt to get out of Fort McMurray.

It's just absolute mass craziness because in Fort  McMurray  you have one way in and one way out.- Julie Lodge

"Right here in the middle of downtown a lady rides by on her horse and she's got two horses in tow just behind her just galloping through town," she said. 

"There's cars everywhere, there's emergency vehicles, there's water bombers," she said.

"It's just absolute mass craziness because in Fort McMurray you have one way in and one way out."

Lodge was able to get out of the community after someone in a truck bashed down the gate to access a backroad bike path. She and some other vehicles followed that path, which brought them down to the highway.

"I think that the Shell gas station had blown up on Highway 63 south, so then we couldn't go south," she said.

"And they told us to go north but I sat in traffic in downtown Franklin for at least an hour not moving, watching my previous home in Abasand go up literally in a puff of smoke."

After being stuck in traffic for hours, Lodge said she was able to get to safety and has been keeping in constant contact with her family, reassuring her young son that she's safe.

Lodge credits the "amazing" emergency responders, as well as the kindness of other in the community willing to help each other get to safety.

'This is actually real'

A view from residents trying to leave Fort McMurray, from Twitter user @ccccrystal__ (Supplied/Twitter)

Dinah Hedderson, from Straitsview on the Northern Peninsula, has lived in Fort McMurray for years and said while she knew the fire was serious, she never dreamed the whole city would be evacuated.

She was in the downtown area having lunch with a friend, when the waitress said they should probably head out.

Hedderson's brother was just coming off a night shift and stopped at the school to pick up her nine-year-old daughter, and the family went home to pack — just in case.

I thought I would be sleeping in my bed tonight, not on Highway 63.- Dinah Hedderson

"I didn't actually think that we were gonna have to leave until yesterday when my husband was trying to get home from the site where he worked," said Hedderson.

"He ended up leaving the work vehicle on the side of the road to run home to us, because he said the traffic was not moving and he wanted to help us pack up. For him to do that, I kind of started to panic — this is actually real."

The family headed out of the city and spent the night in their vehicles — Hedderson and her husband and children in their vehicle, and her brother with their dogs in a second vehicle.

"I thought I would be sleeping in my bed tonight, not on Highway 63."

Hedderson said she's worried about how far they'll get, since they're running out of gas and have no way to warm up milk for her four-month-old baby.

CBC's Terry Reith tweeted this photo of flames blazing near a Mary Brown's restaurant in Fort McMurray Tuesday. (Twitter/@TerryReithCBC)

Now on maternity leave, Hedderson worked at the hospital in Fort McMurray as a nurse, and is wondering if there will be anything left.

"I don't even know if I'm gonna have a job to come back to — or a hospital to come back to."

She's hoping to meet some police and emergency responders she believes may be helping people gas up along Highway 63, but Hedderson said she's still not sure what their destination will be as they flee their home.

'They're losing everything'

'We've had a devastating day,' Chief Darby Allen told CBC's Briar Stewart. 'It's been the worst day of my career' 1:13

Meanwhile, a fly-in, fly-out worker from Botwood said it's amazing to see people still making time to stop and help one another.

"No matter where you look to, there's wall to wall traffic and to the south there's just one big large wall of smoke," said Barry Brent.

There is a lot of people who will help each other, and you're seeing that all over today.- Barry Brent

Tuesday night, Brent spoke to CBC News as he was stuck in traffic for two and a half hours, trying to get out of Fort McMurray.

Brent said as a fly-in, fly-out worker, he's fortunate compared to others in Fort McMurray who are leaving their homes behind as they flee the wall of smoke and flames.

"I don't have anything here that's valuable. I feel sorry for people who have their homes, their life savings and everything whatever invested up here. It's sad to see so many people lose their homes," he said.

"There's gas stations blowing up … my work boots is the most expensive thing I've got here so I'm not going to lose a whole lot, but there's people here who are devastated. They're losing everything they worked for all their life."

'We'll help whoever we can'

Despite the devastation and gridlock traffic trying to get out of the city, Brent said he's taking solace in the fact that his fellow Canadians and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are all looking out for each other.

While he was trying to get out of the city, Brent said he spotted a young family whose car was broken down on the side of the road. He was going to stop and offer them a ride, but someone beat him to it.

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      "Another truck with some people from Newfoundland was ahead of us, they pulled over, took their stuff and threw it all in the back, and got the man and his wife and his small kid in the truck with them and took everything they could out of the car and left it there. That's the type of things going on here," said Brent.

      "There is a lot of Newfoundland spirit here, there is a lot of people who will help each other, and you're seeing that all over today. Wherever there's somebody in trouble and need something and somebody else can help, there are people jumping in and doing whatever they can for them."

      While safety is the number one priority, Brent said it's nice to see people aren't just thinking of themselves.

      "It's nice to see that there's people who are … yes they're looking after their own self, but they're gonna try to help everybody else that they can too on the way."

      "We'll do what Newfoundlanders do, we'll help whoever we can."

      The Canadian Red Cross has set up a donation website dedicated to helping people affected by the fire in Fort McMurray.

      With files from Julia Cook and the St. John's Morning Show