The big question for Fort McMurray residents: 'When can I go back to my home?'
Byron Bourget escaped his Fort McMurray home with little more than his dog, his Jeep, and a hat signed by Willie Nelson. Now, safe in a campground in Edmonton, he called us to share the story of his evacuation.
Listen to his conversation with Checkup guest host Duncan McCue:
Duncan McCue: How are you doing?
Byron Bourget: I think I'm doing pretty good. I'm doing a lot better than some, I know that. I got a roof over my head and I believe my house is still standing. I called my cable company today and got them to ping my modem and it still has power to it.
DM: How did you get out?
BB: I was working at home on my porch and the sky had changed; everything looked like it had a yellow hue to it. I didn't have much of a view from my backyard, so I took a walk out to the end of my street and looked South and it was a huge, wide, black wall of smoke. The Sun was behind it; I guess that's why everything had turned yellow. My neighbour came out and said that the fire jumped the Athabasca River and the Athabasca is just South of us. I asked her if she was sure because until it jumped that river, I felt very safe.
I grabbed my dog and I've got an old Willys Jeep and we jumped in that and took a drive towards the South. I wanted to go down by the golf course, there's a hill you can park on that you can look over the city. I thought I would get a really good view of what was actually going on with my own eyes. So I drove down to the golf course and the place I was going to park and look was already on fire. I turned around and headed straight back to my house and I got my motor home out of my yard, I hooked up a trailer to it, put a vehicle on it and you know, you stand in your house and look around, what do you take?
DM: What did you grab?
BB: I grabbed a few clothes. I grabbed any cash I had and a passport. And there's a painting that my sister had done 20 years ago, you take that. I was still thinking that everything's all right. I took work clothes; I thought I'd be at work the next day. The only keepsake that I grabbed was a hat that Willie Nelson had worn at a concert and signed and given to me. We hopped in my motor home, my girlfriend and I, and the dog, and I drove to the end of my street, which is a block away from Thickwood Boulevard, which is what everyone had to use to get out of that.
The boulevard was packed and not moving. So instead of getting in that lineup, I had limited gasoline left too, we just sat in the church parking lot. I got a lawn chair out and tried to stay calm. I poured a little Bailey's over some ice and I sat in the parking lot and waited there about an hour and 20 minutes. You could see the fire getting closer. It was really unnerving, but I felt it was more dangerous in the lineup. They were forcing everyone to go North at the time and I thought that was not a great place for me to be because eventually you're going to have to go South. There's only one way out of that city and North is a dead end.
DM: You did make it to Edmonton. As the adrenaline and the crisis situation has worn off, is reality starting to sink in?
BB: Yes. It's surreal, but you just try and not think of what's going on. In my mind, I'm just saying I'm going back home in a few of days. My house is still standing. It'll be mine and my neighbours' responsibility to get that city going again. It's going to be up to us to get things rolling again. I try not to think about the position we're in at this moment, living in a campground – not knowing if it's for a couple of days or a couple of months. My biggest question is 'when can I go back to my home?'
Byron Bourget's and Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ilina Ghosh.