We’re with you, Fort McMurray
They were talking about Fort McMurray on the St. John’s Metrobus.
People don’t usually talk much on the Metrobus, you understand. But they’re talking today, and it’s a conversation being heard across the Atlantic provinces, from Tim Hortons in Sydney, N.S., to small towns in the Annapolis Valley. A simple trip online finds reporters from Newfoundland to Charlottetown to Halifax asking Atlantic-Canadians in Alberta to get in touch.
The talk started Tuesday night with the first evacuation order in Fort McMurray. Social media lit up with first-hand tweets and Facebook posts about the fire. Soon, there was a complete evacuation, with video showing the fire terrifyingly close. People at this end of the country started posting information about how to make telephone donations to the Red Cross.
Early Wednesday, fire officials were watching the weather, expecting wind, and posting grim lists of the areas hardest hit by the advancing fire: “Beacon Hill - 80 per cent loss of homes; Timberlea - 12 trailers lost on Mckinlay Cres.” Later in the day, the numbers were 1,600 structures damaged or destroyed.
For so many East Coast workers and their families, Fort McMurray is a long way west, but also the worksite next door.
The oilpatch may be slowing, but it’s far from stopped: scores of Atlantic-Canadians either travel there for work or have moved to the northern Alberta city, putting down roots. Some people (not completely glibly) call it Newfoundland and Labrador’s second-largest city. Cape Breton could say the same.
It’s the great class equalizer on many East Coast flights: workers sometimes use their frequent flyer status to move up into first class, bringing baseball caps and work jackets into the rarified land of Air Canada’s Zone 1.
It also means Fort McMurray is far closer than geography suggests.
By Wednesday afternoon, 88,000 people had left the Fort McMurray area, with no deaths or injuries. It’s an evacuation of astounding proportions and it’s touching people across this region quickly, people wondering and worrying about friends and family on the move.
How close to home is Fort Mac to people on the East Coast? You don’t have to tell anyone here about it - it’s as near as a nephew or niece.
At The Telegram, the news editor reposted Tweets in almost real time from his nephews, their car turned around by a transformer explosion and forced north out of the city.
One of The Telegram’s reporters used to work at Fort McMurray Today, the city’s main newspaper; his daughter, born in the Alberta city, made her parents turn off the television because she can’t watch the fire burning places she knows.
And there’s this exchange, posted on Facebook by my niece, recounting a conversation with her four-year-old about her sister in Fort McMurray: “Mommy what’s going on?” “It’s a fire, sweetheart.” “Is Auntie Christina OK?” “Yes buddy.” “Does she still have a bed?” “I don’t think so, sweet pea.” “It’s OK mommy. She can sleep here in my bed.”
In the office next to mine, an editor didn’t sleep Tuesday night, following a friend’s journey - husband, wife, sevenyear-old twins and the family dog - north out of Fort McMurray, into huge highway gridlock, then south again, taking their chances along a previously closed highway, until there’s a 1:30 a.m. post saying they are safely out of range of the fire: “We were 8 hrs in our car and finally made it out. ... It’s surreal to not know what exactly we are facing in the next few days.”
One thing you can say about our history of moving West for work?
It stretches families far apart, but it weaves us together across a big country, as well.
I remember, years ago, talking to a woman who ran a lounge in a small town on the southern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. The town was too small to keep the lounge running, so it was closed most of the time. We were in an airplane, heading west, but she’d flown east to open the lounge for a wake.
She lived in Fort McMurray, working as a manager in a hardware store. Her husband was driving a dump truck at Syncrude - her son, too. At the time, one daughter was working at a rape crisis centre, the other at a vet’s office.
Every time there was a wedding or a funeral, she’d fly home to open the only lounge in the area.
There are ties that go both ways, regardless of the distance. And Fort Mac is on Eastern Canadian minds and lips today.