Fort McMurray remembers: One year since wildfire evacuation

One year later, people in Fort McMurray remember the wildfire that changed their lives.

'It's certainly something that's on everybody's mind today'

One year ago, Islanders were glued to the news and images from Fort McMurray, many fearing for friends and loved ones. (CBC)

It was one year ago that the residents of Fort McMurray were fleeing the city, racing to escape a huge wildfire.

Many of those affected were from P.E.I., people who had moved there or who were commuting for work.

There was concern there, and back on the Island for their safety, and CBC's Island Morning talked to many families involved.

One person was James Hayward, the vice principal from Ecole McTavish Junior High Public School.

Last year he was driving away from Fort McMurray, but this year he's back in the classroom.

"It's certainly something that's on everybody's mind today, but compared to a lot of people, I fared out quite well, and everything turned out more or less okay with the school here that I work at, and with the student body as well," he told Matt Rainnie.

Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

It didn't look like that would be the case a year ago, when the evacuation order came through.

"At that point we still had many students under our custody here," said Hayward. "Once that order came out, the city became gridlocked with traffic. It became very difficult for parents to get to the school to pick up their kids. So we found ourselves in custody of students at the school until 11:30 p.m."

Remaining students went with the RCMP, and the staff was able to leave the city, something he called a surreal experience. Hayward only had a small amount of gas in his car.

"Once you leave Fort McMurray, you're kind of in the middle of nowhere for quite a while. About 200 kilometres down Highway 63, I ran out of gas, and it was on the side of the highway there that I actually did my interview with you a year ago," he told Rainnie.

Good Samaritan

An hour after the interview, he said a pick-up truck appeared out of nowhere.  Two people had driven from a nearby town to help.

Islander Santana Courtney shared photos from Fort McMurray during the fire. (Submitted by Santana Courtney)

"They had found every jerry can they could get their hands on, and filled them up with gas, and they were coming north to provide relief to many of the people like me who were stranded," said Hayward.

He eventually made it to the home of some good friends near Edmonton at 7:30 a.m., where he stayed for the duration of the evacuation.

Then came the ordeal of waiting for the news from Fort McMurray.

"You were just glued to any source of information you could get," he said. "TV, radio and the internet, things like that, were limited but there were constantly new things coming up on Twitter. Things like recent satellite images of the neighbourhoods. So after about a week I was able to see some satellite imagery of my neighbourhood, and at that point I was able to determine that both my home and my school were okay."

Flames blazing near a Mary Browns restaurant in Fort McMurray. (Twitter/@TerryReithCBC)

The school stayed closed for the remainder of the term, and the junior high finally reopened in August.

Hayward said it was almost a celebration, the students and staff happy to be finally back together.

Not marking anniversary

The school won't be marking the anniversary in any way.

"We've made a conscious decision here at the school to make this day at school business as usual," he said. "There is the potential for emotions to run high on a day like today, so we're trying to limit that."

Hayward said at some point, the school will probably find a way to acknowledge and remember what they went through one year ago.

From the Information Morning interview by Matt Rainnie