“Is Aun­tie go­ing to ride in the fire?”

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Tammy Tiede­mann re­mem­bers the first time she took her kids to the pits. It was 2007. She was 35, a sin­gle mom, a Métis with Cree roots and Fort Mac proud: proud of the work she did for Shell Oil, the ma­chines she op­er­ated, the tough­ness and ca­ma­raderie on the job, and proud of the mine it­self, a mon­u­ment to hu­man­ity’s ca­pac­ity to act on a mas­sive scale, some­thing like the pyra­mids in re­verse.

At the pit mine, 30 miles north of Fort McMur­ray, in north­ern Al­berta, Tiede­mann’s 21-year-old son lit up when he saw enor­mous haulers be­ing fed by di­nosaur-size cranes. Her 14-year-old daugh­ter saw the scored black earth, the gritty plumes of coke dust that gets be­tween your teeth, and said, “I think you work in hell.”

Tiede­mann’s teenagers didn’t know it, but they echoed Rud­yard Ki­pling. Rid­ing through Al­berta in 1907, on a tour of Britain’s colo­nial port­fo­lio, the poet said the re­gion “seemed to have all hell for a base­ment.” He meant it as a com­pli­ment. The land that stretches from the 49th par­al­lel to the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries had been a prov­ince for less than two years, but it was al­ready prov­ing to hold enough fuel to last two or more cen­turies. Most of it is lo­cated in the Athabasca oil sands. An es­ti­mated 166 bil­lion bar­rels of oil, the third-largest petroleum re­serve on the planet, sit be­neath 54,000 square miles of bo­real for­est.

While many oil re­serves sit con­ve­niently be­neath the earth in pools, tap­pable by der­rick, the oil be­neath the Athabasca was squeezed out eons ago by the same tec­tonic forces that raised the Rock­ies. It was mashed into the vast al­lu­vial de­posits of glacier-fed rivers, whose sand and clay sopped it up, like kitty lit­ter on a garage floor. To un­lock this mixture of sand and tar­like oil called bi­tu­men, you must ef­fec­tively re­verse the ge­o­log­i­cal process. First, you have to reach it. In the Athabasca, that’s pos­si­ble via open pit mine. This re­quires re­mov­ing the trees, the top­soil, the or­ganic layer of swampy peat (muskeg), and the “over­bur­den” of rel­a­tively oil-free sand and clay. Then the bi­tu­men must be re­moved and sep­a­rated out.

In the open pits, elec­tric shov­els with 100-ton buck­ets cram bi­tu­men-laden sand into the largest haul trucks any­where. Hauler driv­ers such as Tiede­mann dump each 400-ton load into a maw of spin­ning iron teeth, and from there the sand goes onto su­per­high­way-scale con­veyor belts and pipe­lines. The bi­tu­men sand is crushed, slur­ried, and shaken, mixed with sol­vents, and steamed in boiler domes fanned by air­craft tur­bines un­til, fi­nally, the oil can be skimmed and re­fined. Two tons of sand yield a sin­gle 55-gal­lon bar­rel of what’s called syn­thetic crude.

Pro­duc­ing one of these bar­rels re­quires two to five bar­rels of wa­ter. The min­ing op­er­a­tions in cen­tral Al­berta have li­cense to draw up to 192 bil­lion gal­lons of it from the Athabasca River. Steam is recycled un­til it gets too filthy, and then it’s drained off into tail­ing ponds—30 square miles of sil­very liq­uid, pro­tected by the con­stant pop­ping of air guns, to dis­suade wa­ter­fowl from a toxic touch­down.

The first of these megapits started in 1967, with a part­ner­ship be­tween Sun Oil of Ohio and Great Canadian Oil Sands, later known as Sun­cor. A decade later, they were joined by Syn­crude, which brought a new gen­er­a­tion of bi­tu­men-sep­a­rat­ing tech­niques as well as 450,000 tons of min­ing equip­ment and con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als to Fort McMur­ray, a for­mer trad­ing post that was quickly trans­form­ing into a re­source hub.

Each new oil cri­sis brought more com­pa­nies, big­ger mines, and more for­tune-seek­ers. Oil sands op­er­a­tions proved cost-ef­fi­cient at scale, and by the 1980s, 10-story Fer­ris-wheel­size ex­ca­va­tors worked the sand north of town, and car­wash-size drag buck­ets carved out pits as large as 1,038 Su­per­domes. As the price of oil rose and the tech­nol­ogy im­proved, the op­er­a­tions got larger. From 1999 to 2013, dozens of new play­ers from around the world in­jected C$201 bil­lion ($153.7 bil­lion) into Athabas­can projects, which, by 2014, boiled out 2.3 mil­lion bar­rels of syn­thetic crude a day, ac­cord­ing to En­ergy Al­berta, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment’s de­vel­op­ment agency. Much of this went to the U.S., which re­lies on Canada for 40 per­cent of its im­ported oil. Pro­posed pipe­lines for car­ry­ing Al­ber­tan oil across Canada have been blocked for years, but neigh­bor­ing provinces still share in the wealth; in all, the oil sands ac­counted for about 2 per­cent of Canada’s gross do­mes­tic product in 2015 (al­though some es­ti­mate that it’s more than dou­ble that).

While the sands have been a for­mi­da­ble eco­nomic force, they’re in­creas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial. It’s not just the op­tics of seep­ing tail­ing ponds or the oil cars leap­ing rails and catch­ing fire—it’s all of those things set against ris­ing cli­mate alarm. Last year, Pres­i­dent Obama killed the Key­stone XL pipe­line, which would have car­ried more bi­tu­men south, cit­ing eco­log­i­cal con­cerns. Last win­ter new Canadian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau com­mit­ted Canada to a 30 per­cent re­duc­tion of its 2005 green­house gas emis­sions over the next 15 years. In the last week of May, Canadian gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists re­ported that the bi­tu­men-ex­trac­tion process ev­ery day ex­hales a Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon’s dose of air­borne pol­lu­tants linked to lung can­cer and di­a­betes. With oil de­vel­op­ment of all stripes a tar­get for cli­mate ac­tivists, Al­berta’s open pits, vis­i­ble from space, have taken on the darker cast of Ki­pling’s and the Tiede­mann daugh­ter’s as­sess­ment.

And that was be­fore it all caught fire.

Fort McMur­ray lies in a forested val­ley 270 miles north­east of Ed­mon­ton, be­neath the up­side-down Y formed by the con­flu­ence of the Athabasca and Clear­wa­ter rivers. The out­post be­gan as a convenienc­e for Euro­pean buy­ers meet­ing up with the pelt­laden ca­noes of their abo­rig­i­nal sup­ply chain. Sleepy for most of its his­tory, Fort McMur­ray be­came a boom­town with the ar­rival of the mega-min­ers and was nick­named Fort McMoney. When oil prices were high, some called it Fort Crack.

If you were will­ing to work, the money was ad­dic­tive, with wages that lured work­ers from around the world. They came from Pak­istan and Su­dan, Ire­land and Min­nesota, and ev­ery cor­ner of Canada, mostly from New­found­land. By 1986, “New­fies” com­prised 14 per­cent of Fort McMur­ray’s pop­u­la­tion, which had jumped to 88,000, and many were of a type: hard-liv­ing, hard­work­ing, un­fil­tered white guys in base­ball caps and wrap­around shades who’d put in a few months, bank $48,000, put some into mort­gages back east, and ride the snow­mo­bile tracks till the money ran down. Then they’d do it again. Fly-in, fly-out work­ers put in three hard weeks, then took a break, speed-di­al­ing Air Canada on the drive to the air­port. Enough lost the battle with fa­tigue to give High­way 63—the two lanes in and out of Fort McMur­ray—a rep­u­ta­tion as “the high­way of death.”

Old-timers in Fort McMur­ray made fun of the New­fies, but they, too, “earned and burned”—made more in a few months than they’d ever made in a year, then blew it on par­ties or gam­bling. Or toys: jacked-up du­ally trucks, Ski-Doos, his-’n’-hers bikes. Dur­ing the boom times af­ter 2004, with $150-a-bar­rel oil and “dou­ble-dou­ble” over­time pay—dou­ble wages and dou­ble pen­sion de­posits, too—there was enough to take care of bills with plenty to spare.

Tiede­mann, like hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers, saw the oil sands as an on-ramp to the Canadian dream. She was a small­town girl who un­der­stood her grand­fa­ther’s na­tive Cree bet­ter than she spoke it, and while three kids by three men start­ing at 15 years old wasn’t the way she’d planned it, that’s the way it hap­pened. She knew her home­town of Lac La Biche wasn’t go­ing to take her where she wanted to go. “It didn’t open doors for me”

is the way she put it. She moved north with a plan to “work her way up the lad­der.”

Tiede­mann be­gan work­ing for Syn­crude at 21, as a jan­i­tor. She was emp­ty­ing waste­bas­kets in a dis­patch of­fice one day when she looked out the win­dow. There, grunt­ing through the waste­land, was this … thing. It was a truck big­ger than her house. “I asked the girl next to me, ‘What’s that?’ And she told me, ‘That’s a hauler.’ And I said right then, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”

Tiede­mann en­rolled in heavy equip­ment op­er­a­tor school. She got qual­i­fied for graders, haulers, and fork­lifts, and got a Class 1 li­cense for driv­ing rigs. But she wasn’t sat­is­fied with some puny 18-wheeler. She wanted the truck she’d seen out the win­dow. She took her pa­pers to the oil sands, got more train­ing, got tested, and got her ticket punched.

The first time Tiede­mann went through the gates, she felt it. The big ex­trac­tion sites were “a dif­fer­ent world,” on a dif­fer­ent scale—a sort of Mor­dor sep­a­rated from the forests by moun­tain­ous berms, wide gravel fire­breaks, and se­cu­rity fences. The cen­ter of each site is a city unto it­self—a city of scaf­fold­ing and lad­ders, bi­tu­men pro­cess­ing and im­prov­ing cen­ters, tow­ers of belts and tubes, topped with lights and flame. As many as 54,000 work there at a time, and it has its own rules: can’t swear, can’t tell prej­u­diced jokes, hats off in the din­ing halls.

Tiede­mann worked three days, then three nights, pack­ing lunch to last the 12-hour shifts. To get to work, she could catch a company bus at 6 a.m. and get dropped off at 9 that night or stay on-site in lux­ury trailer dor­mi­to­ries that could feel a bit like prison. It didn’t mat­ter: She shared them with 75 other men and women who soon be­came fam­ily.

Some days she got the D-11 bull­dozer, oth­ers the 24-H or 24-M graders, but her fa­vorite was that 797 heavy hauler. A 400-ton-ca­pac­ity dump truck, it’s a mil­lion dol­lars rid­ing on 14-foot tires that can kill a man with a blowout, and Tiede­mann was in the driver’s seat. From the out­side maybe it did look like hell, but if you weren’t there, you couldn’t know. Tiede­mann racked up nine years with Syn­crude and then al­most seven years more at Shell, mak­ing $64 an hour and an ad­di­tional $7 go­ing into the pen­sion, with plenty of dou­ble-dou­ble over­time.

As her for­tunes im­proved, Fort McMur­ray changed, too, at­tract­ing a ser­vice sec­tor be­yond the im­me­di­ate needs of oil com­pa­nies and oil work­ers: pro­fes­sion­als and fam­i­lies, ra­dio DJs and news­pa­per edi­tors, den­tal prac­tices and yoga cen­ters, air traf­fic con­trollers and golf pros. For her gen­er­a­tion, Fort McMur­ray ceased to be Fort Crack. It be­came a real town—and home.

Later, with her em­ploy­ment sta­ble and three kids grown, she in­dulged a bit. She picked up a Dodge 1500 pickup, a 23-foot camp­ing trailer, and a credit card. But what she loved more than any­thing else was her mo­tor­cy­cle. Her years in the sands came down to a $44,000 chromed-out show bike with a Stage 1 110 en­gine and the tall out­law-biker han­dle­bars they call ape hang­ers. It was one of only seven like it in the coun­try, loud and fast and hand­some, not a thing but a “him.” For Tiede­mann, that Har­ley David­son CVO Break­out de­fined her bucket list.

By Au­gust of last year, how­ever, the good times were be­hind her. Tiede­mann lost her job at Shell. She man­aged to find temp work with a Syn­crude sub­con­trac­tor, mak­ing a quar­ter less and shar­ing an apart­ment with three other women west of down­town. As the price of oil be­gan to tum­ble in 2015, the Al­ber­tan econ­omy went into free fall. Un­em­ploy­ment shot up, va­cancy rates sky­rock­eted, and hous­ing prices tanked. Sud­denly, work­ers that had paid $500,000 for a trailer were out of jobs. They couldn’t make their mort­gage payments, and they couldn’t sell, ei­ther. Jokes about home­owner’s in­sur­ance be­ing the only way out were met with laugh­ter a lit­tle too loud.

On the morn­ing of Mon­day, May 2, Tiede­mann's son Win­ston,

30, checked the job post­ings on the web­site for the Lo­cal 92 la­bor­ers union. No luck. He was on the list, but his num­ber was low. Un­til some­thing opened up, he would wait, car­ing for his cousin Vanessa Chikita’s 4-year-old son, Caleb. Given the un­sea­son­ably

warm weather, he took Caleb out to play, find­ing the un­fin­ished work of a beaver along the wooded trails be­fore putting in some time on the swings be­side the Catholic church in Dick­ins­field, a neigh­bor­hood in Fort McMur­ray’s up­per left cor­ner (page 49). At one point, Caleb pointed to the for­est, where a white rib­bon of smoke rose from the spiky ever­green peaks. “You could smell it,” Win­ston Tiede­mann re­mem­bers, “but we didn’t feel no threat.”

The day be­fore, a wild­fire pa­trol he­li­copter had spot­ted a small blaze near the Horse River, 9.5 kilo­me­ters (6 miles) south­west of Fort McMur­ray. Within 45 min­utes of the sight­ing, an­other chop­per dropped four fire­fight­ers armed with wa­ter pumpers, chain saws, and axes, be­fore cir­cling back with a tow bucket to find a pond. At 4 p.m., the blaze was logged as MWF_009, mean­ing it was the ninth dis­cov­ered in the re­gion so far this year.

If any­thing, the fire was a sign of spring. In an av­er­age year, about 1,600 wild­fires flare up across Al­berta. Most are brought un­der con­trol within a day, and dur­ing fire sea­son, most are caused by light­ning. This time of year, the more usual cause was man—a cig­a­rette butt, the hot muf­fler of an ATV, a spark from a power line. The cause of MWF_009 is still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But with this many hu­mans rid­ing and smok­ing and liv­ing smack up against the dry, dense woods, it was only a mat­ter of time.

Subarc­tic forests crown the planet. While less cel­e­brated than rain forests, they’re com­pa­ra­ble in size and biomass, rep­re­sent­ing one-third of the forests on the planet. And they’ve al­ways burned. Fires clean the forests and help them grow, their heat re­leas­ing seeds from the cones of lodge­pole pines. To­day’s fires, how­ever, are more fre­quent, big­ger, hot­ter, and closer to peo­ple. An area the size of North Dakota, 70 mil­lion acres, burned in Rus­sia in 2012. Last year saw Alaska’s sec­ond-busiest fire sea­son on record—768 fires that con­sumed more than 5 mil­lion acres. Those num­bers are pro­jected to in­crease. The U.S. National Cli­mate As­sess­ment has the area con­sumed by wild­fire dou­bling by 2050, and tripling by 2100 if the Arc­tic warm­ing trend con­tin­ues.

Most wild­fire pol­icy in­volves step­ping on fires close to in­hab­ited ar­eas as quickly as pos­si­ble, re­sult­ing in an in­creas­ing num­ber of ma­ture-growth trees and an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of tin­der. As the cli­mate gets hot­ter and drier, that pol­icy ends up cre­at­ing some­thing of a time bomb: a for­est loaded with fuel, in which a sim­ple spark can rear up into an in­ferno that an­swers only to God or rain.

MWF_009 sur­prised the ex­pert wild­fire crews at first, spread­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion like the burn­ing Bo­nanza map and bloom­ing from 2 to 60 hectares in just two hours. On Sun­day evening the wind pushed it close enough to High­way 63 that Royal Canadian Moun­ties walked the camp­grounds south of town with bull­horns, evac­u­at­ing the semi-per­ma­nent trailer homes. For res­i­dents in the houses across the high­way, how­ever, evac­u­a­tion was vol­un­tary, a stan­dard pre­cau­tion. The fire was close and oddly ag­gres­sive, but it was rel­a­tively small and be­ing worked by planes and chop­pers and pro­fes­sional wild­fire fight­ers. By the time Caleb saw the fire, it had grown to 1,250 hectares but was mov­ing away from town. That evening, the evac­u­a­tion or­ders were re­scinded, and Fort McMur­ray Mayor Melissa Blake’s tweet car­ried less alarm, more com­mon sense: “So re­ally don’t smoke driv­ing a quad in the back­coun­try to light a camp­fire and set off fire­works!” But the dan­ger hadn’t passed.

Tues­day morn­ing broke clear and blue. Even the smell of

smoke from the day be­fore was gone. Caleb’s mom, Chikita, 30, quickly dressed for work, again leav­ing the boy with his “big un­cle” Win­ston.

Win­ston Tiede­mann woke late, checked the Lo­cal 92 site again, and made break­fast for the boy, ex­pect­ing an­other chill day. His cell phone rang around noon. It was Chikita. She said she was com­ing home; Tiede­mann should go out­side and look for smoke. He didn’t bother at first and re­mained un­wor­ried— the fire from the day be­fore was on the other of the Athabasca River, a nat­u­ral fire break 1 kilo­me­ter-wide.

Af­ter a spell, he and Caleb stepped out front. A black curtain rose from be­low the ridge, ex­tend­ing to the south and west. It was a hyp­notic thing, inky and rolling, and be­hind it, the two could see flames. There were ashes in the wind and glit­tery sparks that landed on the lawn.

Around one o’clock the wind shifted, and, as Tiede­mann and Caleb watched, the larches and pines on the south side of the river lit up like can­dles. The smoke bil­lowed and parted, and the flames marched higher. Tiede­mann re­al­ized it had jumped the river. There was noth­ing be­tween it and them. Tweets from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties that morn­ing con­firmed as much.

@Al­berta Wild­fire says a five hectare fire has cross the Athabasca River. 10 fire­fight­ers are en route #ymm­fire #ymm

Within the hour, the au­thor­i­ties tried to dis­pel panic by telling res­i­dents what to ex­pect.

@Al­berta Wild­fire: we’ll start see­ing full crown fire (trees fully en­gulfed) around noon to­day #ymm #ymm­fire #rmwb

By 2 p.m., Chikita was home and had be­gun fran­ti­cally pack­ing a few things—baby pic­tures, clothes for Caleb, tooth­brushes—and called Tammy Tiede­mann. At 2:05 p.m., the evac­u­a­tion or­der be­came manda­tory.

Tammy had been sleep­ing off a night shift, with her alarm set for 4 p.m., when she heard a bang­ing at her door. She ig­nored it, fell back asleep, and then heard it again. She re­mem­bers think­ing, “Who’s the jerk?” then, shuf­fling to­ward the door, “Why’s it so dark?”

Tiede­mann opened the door. “It was some neigh­bor lady,” she says. “I never seen her be­fore.” The woman was breath­less. “They’re evac­u­at­ing. Lis­ten to your ra­dio,” the woman said, be­fore march­ing off to the next door.

Tammy turned on the ra­dio. “It’s a song, but a minute later it makes the dee-do-dee-do, that elec­tronic break-in noise, and says, ‘This is an evac­u­a­tion. Bea­con Hill and Abasand Heights are evac­u­at­ing in 10 min­utes, Grayling Ter­race has a halfhour to evac­u­ate. I re­peat …’—which, you never want to hear.” Tiede­mann’s Grayling Ter­race neigh­bor­hood was a small one, a clus­ter of houses squeezed into the hol­low be­side High­way 63, hills on ei­ther side, the for­est tight be­hind. Those woods were now on fire. That woke her up.

Tiede­mann had worked in the fire emer­gency crews at the mine sites. She knew that sec­onds count. She started pulling draw­ers from her dresser, jam­ming the good stuff into plas­tic garbage bags, do­ing the math in her head. Twenty min­utes on the evac­u­a­tion clock. Out the win­dow she could see trucks stream­ing down 63, flee­ing the neigh­bor­hood di­rectly to her north. That’s when she called Chikita and said she was on her way with her truck. She could fit the garbage bags and take her room­mate, too. But she couldn’t fit the Har­ley.

Ten min­utes. It was time to go. Tiede­mann looked from the fire to her room and the stuff she’d bought, the king bed and good du­vet, the chest of draw­ers. She’d worked hard for this stuff, and now it might burn. She said a lit­tle prayer, hop­ing, “Please God, don’t let it.” Then she thought of her bike again. No way in hell was she leav­ing that bike be­hind. She could move it to a safer place, she thought. She still had a few min­utes left.

For­est fires are rated by their in­ten­sity. Ex­perts con­sider

those above 4,000 kilowatts per me­ter to be too dan­ger­ous to be worked by fire crews on the ground, and wa­ter bomber air­craft are fu­tile at 10,000 kW/m. By the time Tiede­mann heard the evac­u­a­tion or­der, the heart of the fire near her home was es­ti­mated to be rag­ing at 100,000 kW/m. The au­thor­i­ties no longer called it by a num­ber or its place of ori­gin. Now they called it the Beast.

Even a small fire like MWF_009 can turn cat­a­strophic un­der the right con­di­tions, es­pe­cially when the tem­per­a­ture in de­grees Cel­sius tops the rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity. Wild­fire ex­perts call this the cross­over point, and be­fore noon on May 3 the forests of north­ern Al­berta were well past it. Soon the tem­per­a­ture hit 30C and the rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity had dropped to 15 per­cent. The Beast was rag­ing hot enough to cre­ate its own weather sys­tem. More than 2,600 hectares of resin and cel­lu­lose were burn­ing, su­per­heat­ing the air and send­ing it bal­loon­ing up into the strato­sphere. That great hot col­umn drew its breath from all di­rec­tions, fuel­ing and push­ing the fire like a spin­ning top. The hot­ter a for­est fire burns, the faster the air from the cen­ter shoots up, and the more air it draws from out­side the fire, un­til 90 kilo­me­ter-per-hour gusts are feed­ing a con­vec­tion col­umn 16 kilo­me­ters tall. In ex­tra­or­di­nary cases, the re­sult­ing pyro-cu­mu­lonim­bus thun­der­head may shoot light­ning bolts miles into the sur­round­ing for­est, spark­ing new fires like an in­cen­di­ary mother ship seed­ing its ra­dius. It’s rare, but it hap­pens. It was hap­pen­ing now. Mean­while, as the hot chim­ney of the con­vec­tion col­umn con­tin­ued to rise, edges of that col­umn started to cool and col­lapse in the frigid up­per at­mos­phere, spew­ing flam­ing de­bris for miles.

Un­der­stand­ing the fire didn’t make it pre­dictable. The Beast marched with the pre­vail­ing winds. It danced and stag­gered to the tune of up draft­ing fire whirls and down­bursts. It flared and puffed with fluc­tu­a­tions of heat and hu­mid­ity. And as it grew and

moved and in­ten­si­fied, the Beast was in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous for fire crews to en­gage.

Ground teams had worked through the pre­vi­ous night, bull­doz­ing fire­guards to starve the flames’ ad­vance, but the fire was in the wind. Ar­rows of em­ber sailed over the bull­dozed spa­ces, ig­nit­ing the tree line be­yond and forc­ing crews to re­treat. Air tankers and he­li­copters, un­able to at­tack the flames them­selves, con­tin­ued to lay down red tor­rents of fire re­tar­dant in pin­cer pat­terns. Fire crews from the Sun­cor fa­cil­i­ties bar­reled south to­ward the neigh­bor­hoods of Thick­wood and Wood Buffalo, tear­ing through fences and back­yards un­til they reached the for­est edge. Pumper trucks with tur­reted hoses doused rooftops un­til the wa­ter pres­sure flagged. Here, the fire­fight­ers watched as the ad­vanc­ing fire hit the line of soaked trees and stum­bled, burn­ing and steam­ing but spar­ing most of the houses; in other places along the line, the fire sim­ply rolled through.

By 3 p.m., nearly all the trailer homes in Fort McMur­ray’s Con­ti­nen­tal Park were in­cin­er­ated. Homes in the Abasand neigh­bor­hood be­gan to smol­der; some burst into flame, oth­ers caught slowly from the glow­ing pine em­bers that had blown onto their cedar-shin­gle rooftops. In aban­doned neigh­bor­hoods, dogs and cats roamed the streets, cars and trucks lay scat­tered where they had run out of fuel, and rest stops were lit­tered with tankers of crude, un­hitched from their trac­tors as their driv­ers fled.

De­spite the planes and he­li­copters, the flames had con­tin­ued to grow ex­po­nen­tially, gath­er­ing size and power in the for­est, burn­ing hot and deep through the tree layer and as much as 5 feet into the peat, where it might smol­der for months or more, trav­el­ing un­der­ground and seed­ing new fire. Lo­cal ex­perts said they’d never seen a wild­fire move this ag­gres­sively; after­ward they’ll need to re­write the book on how to man­age it. At press time, the fire re­mained out of con­trol and was 1 of 16 ac­tive wild­fires in Al­berta.

It seemed to take an eter­nity for Tiede­mann to ar­rive. Chikita

called her aunt re­peat­edly, check­ing in, get­ting no an­swer. Win­ston wor­ried. Chikita was pissed but tried to keep Caleb calm, the three of them wait­ing in the drive­way and watch­ing for the big Dodge while burn­ing pine nee­dles rained down. Fi­nally they saw it. Tammy was in­stantly de­fen­sive. She’d said she was com­ing! Chikita handed Caleb to Win­ston, and he loaded him into a child seat, chat­ting, try­ing to keep it nor­mal. Tammy was freak­ing: talk­ing fast, chain-smok­ing, and shak­ing so badly she couldn’t work the lighter. She handed Win­ston the keys.

They inched east to­ward 63, the only path of es­cape for the town’s en­tire pop­u­la­tion. The fire was rag­ing across the high­way to the south now. At the in­ter­sec­tion of 63, a po­lice­man waved every­one north; the lane south was blocked by fire.

“But north didn’t make no sense to me,” Win­ston said later. The road went to the oil sands and the work camps and then pretty much ended. If they could get past the fire, south led to fam­ily and civ­i­liza­tion.

Tammy wanted to go south, too, to Mac­Don­ald Is­land, where she’d stashed her Har­ley while Win­ston, Chikita, and Caleb awaited res­cue. Still, they had no choice but to join the con­voy north. They were silent for a while. They’d only got­ten about a kilo­me­ter in the crawl­ing traf­fic be­fore Win­ston calmed down enough to do the ob­vi­ous thing and look at the gas gauge. The nee­dle tilted down to less than a quar­ter tank. Now they had to back­track, wast­ing more time.

The only gas sta­tion left had six pumps and twice as many lines of cars try­ing to get to them. They waited an hour, then an­other. The scene was clas­sic Canadian ci­vil­ity cut with uni­ver­sal hu­man panic. New­com­ers formed their own lines, or cut in, then al­lowed oth­ers to cut in. The gas sta­tion own­ers mar­shaled traf­fic, but it was im­pos­si­ble to man­age every­thing, and ar­gu­ments started, one turn­ing into a fist­fight. The sky was blue on one side, black and pur­ple and glow­ing with fire to the west and south. It was hard to watch, hard to look away.

Ev­ery pump was jammed, but one was dedicated to peo­ple with jer­rycans. It was shorter and faster, but Tiede­mann didn’t have a jer­rycan. Early on, the gas sta­tion had started sell­ing off bot­tles of wind­shield washer fluid. Peo­ple bought the bot­tles, dumped out the fluid, a river of blue stuff run­ning down the street. But even those were gone.

Chikita and Tammy bought some soda, chips, and jerky for Caleb. Win­ston’s place in line had barely moved; this wasn’t go­ing to work. Chikita and Win­ston ex­changed a look—she’d go out, find some­thing. Chikita headed off to­ward the neigh­bor­hoods. Tammy sat, smok­ing, talk­ing, till Win­ston sug­gested, “Hey, Ma? Why don’t you go take a look, too.” A half-hour later, Tammy and Chikita came back. Chikita had a red jer­rycan in her hand, grabbed out of the back of a truck she’d found in a nearby neigh­bor­hood. She felt bad about tak­ing it, un­til she thought of sav­ing Caleb.

Chikita, Tammy, and Win­ston joined the jer­rycan line, each fill­ing it once. Now they had more than half a tank in the Dodge. Four hours later, when they fi­nally got to 63 again, the south lane was open, the cop gone. They asked them­selves again: north or south? “We can get my bike!” Tammy said. “Mom ...” But Tammy wouldn’t stop. “Let’s go to Mac Is­land,” she said. “Let’s get my bike.” That’s when the oth­ers re­al­ized why it had taken her so long to pick them up.

Cars were sideswip­ing one an­other and driv­ing on. Win­ston had seen a van plow through fences and over the sidewalk, cars fol­low­ing. Other cars just waited in line. Peo­ple walked the high­way car­ry­ing suit­cases or ba­bies. A pickup had a fire in its bed, a fam­ily’s be­long­ings torched. And now this—Tammy cry­ing over a bike while a 4-year-old sat qui­etly, watch­ing fire eat his town.

They crossed the Athabasca. They could see the bridge to Mac Is­land—it wasn’t on fire. None of the other cars was mak­ing that turn; it was a dead end. They were all very quiet. Then Win­ston grunted in dis­gust, and swung the wheel left to­ward the bridge. The bike was where Tammy had left it, by a park. She cried when she saw it, still there, fine.

She started pulling on her gear, every­thing she had, the gloves and hel­met, ty­ing the leather bal­a­clava tight around her neck and pulling it up high over her nose, adding the wrap­around glasses. Win­ston looked—were they just plas­tic? They’d melt with a lighter. He looked away.

“I’ll be quick,” Tammy said. She started to check the mir­rors but saw Win­ston’s look and just flipped the switch and started the bike up. “Don’t worry about me,” she yelled. “Is Aun­tie go­ing to ride in the fire?” Caleb asked. “Aun­tie,” Chikita yelled. “We re­ally got to go.” Win­ston didn’t like it. His mom was go­ing to get her­self killed. Smoke rolled over them, turn­ing the sun to a pin­prick. Tammy turned around at the light, saw them star­ing at her through the wind­shield. She gave a big thumbs-up. Then she steered up the ramp to the high­way and en­tered the stream of cars headed south.

Win­ston had never seen any­thing like it. The for­est and street of houses to the right were burn­ing. A gas sta­tion had blown up. The Denny’s and Super 8 in flames. Far­ther on, the for­est on the right was ex­plod­ing, the Aspens pop­ping like fire­crack­ers. And there’s his mom, driv­ing through the smoke and ash on her chromed-out bike, hands high on the ape hang­ers, her rearview mir­rors black with smoke.

Their plan had been to meet up in An­zac, a town 26 miles

down the road, but that didn’t work out. They fol­lowed Tammy closely un­til they’d got­ten through the fire, but be­cause of the traf­fic, they split up, Tammy tak­ing ad­van­tage of her bike to ride the shoul­der and Win­ston do­ing his best in four-wheel drive off the side of the road in a gulch be­side the high­way. When they didn’t find her in An­zac, Win­ston, Chikita, and Caleb con­tin­ued on to Lac La Biche, 171 miles to the south. It was 2 a.m. on May 4 by the time Win­ston got to his grandma’s house. She cried when she saw them. Win­ston teared up him­self. Tammy fi­nally joined them around 4 p.m. that af­ter­noon. So much had hap­pened in the last 24 hours.

Then be­gan the wait. For 90,000 evac­uees in the sur­round­ing cities and towns, days turned to a week, and then weeks. The dis­placed were no longer week­enders, they were refugees. They were of­fered shel­ter in dor­mi­to­ries on raised plat­forms with cor­ru­gated roofs. Chil­dren were in­vited to im­pro­vised schools, but the stu­dents from Fort McMur­ray were promised they’d be ad­vanced a grade au­to­mat­i­cally for next fall. The

out­pour­ing of sup­port and do­na­tions from fel­low Cana­di­ans was over­whelm­ing, and even re­cent ar­rivals from Syria con­trib­uted.

But what the ma­jor­ity of the evac­uees wanted most was in­for­ma­tion. They traded news and ru­mors from Face­book and stud­ied satellite maps for clues about what had hap­pened to their homes. They fol­lowed each news item about the hold­out who’d bro­ken win­dows to res­cue pets, an­other who looted aban­doned homes, and a man who’d sneaked back into town to douse his un­burned home with gaso­line. (It burned, and so did two neigh­bor­ing homes. Some spec­u­lated he did it for the in­sur­ance money.)

Two teenagers died dur­ing the evac­u­a­tion in an ac­ci­dent on the road south in which a fuel truck ex­ploded. Some 2,400 struc­tures burned in Fort McMur­ray, and a few neigh­bor­hoods had been de­stroyed, but as much as 85 per­cent of the town re­mains—saved or sim­ply spared, it’s hard to say. Crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, such as the hos­pi­tal and wa­ter treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties, was left stand­ing.

With the dead­wood cleared or burned, the evac­uees will be al­lowed to re­turn be­gin­ning on June 3. The “Fort Mac Strong” have vowed to re­build, and many surely will. There will be work just clean­ing up. On Sun­day, May 29, Win­ston fi­nally got a call from his union. He’s been as­signed to clear de­bris from the fire, to lit­er­ally pick up the pieces.

Chikita took the bus south to Ed­mon­ton, back to her par­ents’ house, where her sis­ter and brother-in-law also live. Chikita ap­pre­ci­ates the hos­pi­tal­ity, but she’d left home for a rea­son. For the first few days, Caleb talked non­stop, and only about fire and death. To hear him tell it, every­one was dead; his friends were dead, his neigh­bors and their pets, even his toys.

Tammy Tiede­mann has been mov­ing from place to place, most re­cently vis­it­ing her youngest in Cal­gary. On June 4 she in­tends to drive up to Fort McMur­ray, a “Ft. Mac Proud” de­cal across her truck’s rear win­dow, an “Al­berta Strong” tattoo on her fore­arm. She’ll check her cam­per and apart­ment, but will she stay? Like many of those who have worked in the oil sands, she’d like to tran­si­tion to some­thing greener or take some time off, maybe tour­ing the national parks. If oil comes back, though, the money may be too good to re­sist. <BW>

581,695 hectares burned 2,360 wild­land fire­fight­ers $765 mil­lion in lost oil pro­duc­tion

Chikita and her son, Caleb, in Ed­mon­ton

Traf­fic on May 3 leav­ing Fort McMur­ray

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