EDMONTON – “It is very surreal because you watch this on TV all the time, like when there are floods or hurricanes in the US, and you think, ‘That’s awful,’ but you really don’t grasp it until your in the midst of it,” said Carolyne Hadley when asked if she had ever been in a natural disaster before her brush with the Fort McMurray wild fire last week.
Hadley, who is originally from Guysborough, is a contract worker for Suncor and flies in and out of the work site, approximately 35 miles North of Fort McMurray, from her home in Southwestern Ontario. This week she is counting her blessings and considers herself to be one of the lucky ones because she knows, in the midst of the ongoing disaster, that she has a home to which she can return. She spoke to The Journal last Thursday morning from Edmonton, while waiting for a flight.
“I was lucky,” said Hadley. “I was at camp and I never felt unsafe. But then I’m the type that I always look at things like and adventure. It was very surreal; it was like watching a movie.”
In the days leading up to Tuesday, May 3, when the wildfire tore through Fort McMurray, work progressed as usual at the Suncor site where Hadley is employed as a Quality-control weld inspector. “And then the wind shifted and it went completely out of control,” said Hadley.
Approximately 80 per cent of Suncor staff live in Fort McMurray and they were told by the company on Tuesday to go home, pack up their families and return to the site. Operations at the site, as well as at sites operated by Syncrude and Shell, were shut down. Hadley put in a full workday completing the shut down. When she returned to camp at the end of the day she was told to pack up her things to make way for Fort McMurray evacuees. The company was preparing to move the workers to an aerodrome further North and fly them out of the area. But, much like everything else that was unpredictable last week, those plans changed.
“Then the winds shifted again and the roads were clear so a lot of us went in our own vehicles to Fort McMurray airport,” said Hadley. “But the airspace was closed and there were no more flights -- so they started to bus those with reservations to Edmonton.”
Hadley did not have a ticket booked, as she was not due home for another month, so she started driving to Edmonton. “At the best of times it is a 4 1/2 to five hour drive but unfortunately there is absolutely no gas stations until you get about half way and we only had half a tank of gas. And that was the problem for a lot of people; there were no gas stations because now everything is shut down in Fort McMurray so there is no place to get gas. All along the highway was littered with cars and trucks. Where they stopped is where they stopped.”
Fortunately, as is often the case, the emergency brought out the best in people and good samaritans plied the highway with fuel and water. Hadley was shocked by the effort, “What was absolutely amazing was a lot of small companies in the area, like the one that helped us -- Stanley Security Solutions -- they were just trucking loads of red jerry cans out to those highways for people. We had about 40 kilometres of gas left when we ran across these guys on the road. We stopped and got gas and we were lucky. We finally got to the airport last night at six o’clock.”
In the drive South, Hadley saw first-hand the destruction caused by the fire in the Fort McMurray area. “I was taking pics going out yesterday; the whole place was burnt. The fire actually jumped the road—so they had fire on both sides of the road. It was devastating but amazing how huge the fire was. At camp it looked like the fire was just down the street cause you could see the smoke and flames and yet it was 35 miles away. It was that huge.”
Along with the size and impact of the fire, Hadley was astonished by the goodwill she and other evacuees encountered and expressed in recent days. “What amazed me from day one was that people aren’t angry, they know what they lost was stuff and yes it is heartbreaking but they are so happy they got out with their lives and their children. They’re happy with the oil companies, for all the beating they take in the media, they provided the camps and the food and the water. People are thankful for that.”
Commenting on the relief effort that has gone out to Fort McMurray workers and residents Hadley said, “It just goes to show that Canadians are basically pretty awesome in that way. Help is coming from everywhere; Newfoundland, Nova Scotia. Needless to say that Fort McMurray is probably 80 per cent East Coast...It’s been amazing. It makes you appreciate how good people can be and that is still there. We always hear about how bad everything is, and crime, but it just goes to show that there are still a lot of good people in the world.”