Sask. family camps roadside overnight after Fort McMurray fire

Malissa Holstein recounts what it was like to prepare, pack, and leave her Fort McMurray home with her young family.

Malissa Holstein describes leaving the city in packed-motorhome as 'apocalyptic'

Malissa Holstein and her family left their home in Fort McMurray, Alta. on Tuesday, May 3 after hearing the wildfire had grown significantly and was threatening homes. (Photo by Malissa Holstein)

Malissa Holstein and her husband are originally from Leader, Sask., and moved to Fort McMurray, Alta., four years ago. The couple now lives in the Thickwood neighbourhood with their three-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and their dog.

Holstein spoke to CBC Radio's Morning Edition about a 24-hour period in Fort McMurray where things went from normal to chaos as they fled the city for safety.

Tuesday morning

Malissa Holstein said Tuesday morning was smoky, but it started as a regular day. 

She got dressed, had breakfast, dropped her son off at school, and then got groceries.

"We kinda knew it was a coming so we did a huge grocery pack and I loaded up our motorhome," Holstein said.

She added the couple made sure to pack two weeks of food in case there was a situation where they had to leave their home.

Malissa Holstein described the scene leaving Fort McMurray, Alta. on Tuesday, May 3 as devastating, with thick smoke rising on the horizon and a lineup of cars and buses leaving the city. (Photo by Malissa Holstein)


By the time she picked up her son from kindergarten, parents were starting to talk about how the fire had jumped and was getting closer to the city.

After lunch, the family continued to pack but with more detail.

"We packed up suitcases, our passports and our safe, and all the stuff you would expect you would take if you're never coming back to your house."

Holstein said they made sure to bring anything they'd need to survive on their own in case they got turned away from one of the camps where people where headed for temporary shelter.


At 3 p.m. CST, the family left their home but then spent an hour stuck in traffic just one block away from their house.

It took them more than three hours to leave the city. When they finally got out, they headed north in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Holstein described the scene as apocalyptic. "Cars were stalling. Pregnant moms were standing at the side of the road. It was devasting."

The road out of Fort McMurray was lined up for kilometres as thousands of people evacuated the northern Alberta city. Malissa Holstein and her family parked on the side of the road and made camp for the night on Tuesday, May 3. (Photo by Malissa Holstein)


The family didn't make it to the camp.

Holstein said they ended up parking their camper on the side of the road at around 9 p.m. They travelled with their neighbours who have a trailer and they stayed close by.

"We had accommodations and food so we wanted to leave that space [in the camp] for people that were coming out in just their cars."

Holstein said she tried to stay as calm as possible. Her children are three and five years old so they didn't really understand what was happening. She said the kids thought it was a fun night where they got to camp with their neighbours.

Wednesday morning

At 6:30 a.m. CST, her husband left to go back to work in the oilsands.

"He is at site doing what he needs to do make sure the people are safe there and we just are praying that we'll all soon be together, " Holstein said.

She and the kids drove to Edmonton where they have friends and family, and a place to stay. She added the air quality was better.

Holstein said she received information that her neighbourhood is one of the places in town that was minimally affected by the fire. 

"We're expecting fully to go home and have a house," Holstein said. "It's probably going to be stinky from the smoke but — we have a house."