As It Happens

'Like driving through a warzone' Convoy leads evacuees through smoky Fort McMurray

Starting Friday, a convoy of more than 1,500 vehicles began driving south down Highway 63 through a smoky, ashen Fort McMurray. The procession will take four days to complete.
A lineup of cars waits to continue south along Highway 63, as part of a massive convoy. Marisa Heath was one of the fire evacuees, who had been camping out on the side of the road for 36 hours with her husband, two dogs, cat, and seven kittens. (CBC/ANGELA JOHNSTON)

Some of Fort McMurray's fire evacuees got a glimpse of their city through the car window today. And what they saw didn't look good.

A line of cars travels south of Highway 63, as part of a massive convoy organized by RCMP. Over the next four days, 1,500 vehicles from north of Fort McMurray will travel through the city and on to next destinations. (CBC)

The evacuees were part of a massive convoy travelling south down Highway 63. For the past few days, many of them have been holed up at work camps or evacuation centres north of Fort McMurray. They've been waiting for the RCMP to lift a blockade on the highway. It's the only route in and out of Fort McMurray — so they had essentially been trapped.

A massive plume of smoke, from a wildfire north of the city, stretches over Fort McMurray. The fire enveloping Fort McMurray has grown to 247,000 acres, forcing 88,000 people to flee this week and threatening two oil sands sites south of the city. (REUTERS)

Fort McMurray resident Marisa Heath was one of those evacuees. She, her husband and their two dogs, cat and seven kittens were part of the convoy on Friday.

Heath tells As It Happens host Carol Off that seeing her fire-ravaged city was "surreal."

"It was eerily surreal. I can't even put it into words how I felt."

"There was nothing but charred ashes, leftover foundation... vehicles everywhere, stranded by people who either ran out of gas or ran out time. It was like driving through a war zone," she says.

A map of the convoy, travelling from north of Fort McMurray, south down Highway 63. The convoy is expected to last four days. (CANADIAN PRESS)

Heath and her husband had been camping on the side of the road for 36-hours before entering the convoy.

An RCMP officer surveys the damage in Fort McMurray, Alta. as a wildfire continues to burn. (RCMP)

"It was frustrating at times, but we really banded together. Everyone out there really became a family. Sometimes, it was just moral support. Sometimes, we would use humour to lighten the mood."

Since the evacuation, Heath estimates that her and her husband have had about 10-hours of sleep altogether. But she says her exhaustion is nothing compared to that of first responders. 

"The police have had very little sleep but they've bent over backwards for us. It means so much to us that these men and women are willing to put their lives on the line for us to keep us safe and calm. It means more than I can even describe."

On Friday morning, the RCMP had been allowing 50 cars at a time to pass through Fort McMurray for safety precautions, given how smoky the conditions of the city are.

By Friday afternoon, officials had temporarily halted the convoy because towering flames were dangerously close to Highway 63. When the convoy restarted, it had reduced the number of vehicles in each batch by half.

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