EDMONTON, Alberta — The passengers arrived through an airport gate normally used as an exit. Some had bulging oversize bags, others nothing more than a shopping bag or backpack. And all around were an unusual number of children, along with dogs and cats of all sizes.
The arrivals at Edmonton International Airport were part of an effort to re-evacuate about 8,000 people who had fled north from Fort McMurray, Alberta, as vast wildfires moved in on the city this week, only to find themselves cut off from the rest of Canada as the blaze spanned the only highway south.
“It’s just surreal, I don’t know what to do,” Lory Curnew told her former neighbor Marlene McDonald as they stood by a baggage carousel. “It’s devastating to say the least.”
The evacuees had taken refuge in work camps normally used by oil sands workers. But some of those camps quickly became overcrowded. The combination of the camps being cut off and the remote possibility that the fire could swing their way, has led to the airlift, which will last for days. While the evacuees’ arrival in Edmonton brought them to safety, it only reinforced the uncertainty they now face having fled a city where much, including many of their homes, has been reduced to ashes.
They had been among the Canadians drawn to Fort McMurray by jobs that paid exceptionally high wages during the oil boom. That beacon dimmed with the global plunge in petroleum prices, but the oil industry’s downturn is now the least of their concerns. And although her future is far from clear, Curnew, like many of the evacuees, is already skeptical about promises from politicians that Fort McMurray will rise again.
“For a lot of people, I don’t think they’ll go back,” said Curnew, a single mother who worked in construction and who arrived with a single suitcase, her 15-year-old-son, Parker, and two dogs. “You just can’t go back there with no services, no food coming in, no anything. You just can’t go back there.”
With the wildfires now covering more than 210,000 acres and, as of Thursday afternoon, seizing and scorching still more territory, officials and politicians are dodging questions about Fort McMurray’s future. Yet it is already difficult to foresee that a city of about 90,000 people that struggled with explosive growth earlier in this decade will emerge in the same form. And for the thousands of its residents who have nothing to return to, there is no new Canadian boomtown to replace it.
With flames lapping at the edges of Highway 63, the city’s only land connection to the rest of Canada, the vast majority of the 88,000 evacuees went south in a slow-motion traffic jam in which trips that normally last minutes stretched into hours.
Some drivers, with their cars low on gas and service stations closed, stopped on the side of the road or gave up at nearby communities like Anzac. As the fire expanded and shifted south, they were forced to again pack up and find refuge.
By Thursday, officials believed that the vast majority had made their way to Edmonton, the nearest major city, or farther south to Calgary, the home of white-collar oil industry workers.
About 2,800 people without friends or family in Edmonton ended up registering at the Northlands Exhibition Center, now an emergency shelter, including Justin Dick, 23, who was lured to Fort McMurray three years ago along with his mother and stepfather, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, by hopes of sharing in the oil boom.
Now, Dick said outside the exhibition hall, it looked as if the house where he lived and all their belongings had been consumed.
“We just wanted to get ahead in life and now we’ve lost everything,” he said.
A few yards away, Malcolm MacQueen, 31, a fire extinguisher technician from Fort McMurray, said that he was already looking for another job just hours after arriving in Edmonton.
“You want to remain hopeful but it’s hard with the reports, so you just have to make the best of it,” MacQueen said.
Like many hotels, the Chateau Lacombe in downtown Edmonton had become something of an impromptu shelter, at least for those Fort McMurray residents who could afford it. Dogs and children sat around the lobby as their anxious parents tried to figure out how to move forward.
In the restaurant Wednesday night, a group of employees of Suncor, a Canadian energy company, watched television news reports about the fire and checked Twitter. Ryan Whitmarsh, 28, an engineer, said he happened to sleep late Tuesday morning, missed a company shuttle and had to take his car to work. His inadvertent tardiness proved to be a boon a few hours later when everyone was told to evacuate immediately.
At home, his father, Randy, a Suncor worker on the night shift, quickly packed frozen food and drinks into a cooler, which they loaded into Whitmarsh’s car along with a tent and their passports. The highway to Edmonton was so jammed that they camped on the road Tuesday night, waking up to spot good Samaritans offering free gasoline to stranded motorists.
While Ryan Whitmarsh and his father are safe, worries about his $427,000 house torment him. “I have a knot in my stomach just thinking about it,” he said.
Though most residents cling to the faint hope that their homes and belongings have survived, some are less optimistic. Asked what she expected to find upon returning to her condominium, Mona Wesala, 27, a Kenyan engineer who works for Suncor, slowly shook her head. “Ashes,” she said.
Not all evacuees had flights to safety. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported that thousands of cars were lined up behind a blockade north of Fort McMurray on Thursday. As frustration mounted, the broadcaster reported, more than two dozen cars and trucks tried to force their way through police cars acting as barriers but stopped when at least one police officer stood in front of his cruiser.
What will replace the ashes of Fort McMurray and what to do with the displaced remained questions for the future Thursday. While temperatures that were unusually high even for midsummer were replaced by more seasonable conditions Thursday, the fire showed no obvious signs of abating. Fire officials told reporters that without significant rainfall, it could remain out of control and continue growing for several more days.
Aerial bombers were covering the building still standing in Fort McMurray with water and flame retardants. But officials said those measures would not guarantee the buildings’ protection.
Fort McMurray has loomed large in the collective imagination of Canada. To environmentalists, its name is synonymous with degradation. Others view the oil sands a major technological achievement. And many Canadians, without ever visiting, imagined an out-of-control boom town rampant with crime and social problems. Both, along with eye-popping real estate prices, exist but became inflated in retellings beyond the city.
Curnew, like a disproportionate number of Fort McMurray residents, came from Newfoundland, a province of chronic unemployment, 22 years ago to build a new life. She hopes to stay in her adopted province.
While she said that she has encountered nothing but kindness since Tuesday, Curnew was disturbed about much of what she saw on social media.
“I’ve been reading some of the negative comments on Facebook people, saying, ‘All these materialistic people, they’re getting what they deserve, their crap town is burning,’” she said before boarding a chartered city bus to Northlands. “I started out as a single mom there just renting, worked it up and got a house all myself. I’m not materialistic. I was just there living within my means just trying to raise my son.”