Photograph by Ian C. Bates, National Geographic
Photograph by Ian C. Bates, National Geographic

Wildfire Evacuees Tell Stories of Hope and Generosity

Our photographer met some of Fort McMurray’s 88,000 evacuees. Here are their stories.

Almost 90,000 people have left their homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, as a massive wildfire ravaged their town.

They spent hours in traffic, unsure of where they were going. Many don’t know if the homes they left behind are still there, or when they can return to Fort McMurray.

Our photographer met evacuees in the cities, towns, and camps that have taken them in. The evacuees shared stories of their escapes and of the kindness of the strangers who have welcomed them.

Brant Pritchett is staying at an oil workers camp in Wandering River, Alberta. To evacuate, Pritchett drove through the Beacon Hill neighborhood with his cousin and younger brother in the car. “There were flames on both sides of the highway. It was pretty scary,” he says, “especially when you have your little brother and your little cousin in the car with you, and they're freaking out, and you have to tell them to calm down."

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It took Victoria and Clinton Lizee almost 10 hours to evacuate Fort McMurray and travel to Lac La Biche 110 miles (177 kilometers) away.

“It was really frightening, because all the ground was on fire. It was like when you see pictures of a volcano with the lava pouring down the hill; it looked like fire puddles. When you looked in the rearview mirror, it was like a bomb went off. You could just see a cloud of smoke over Fort McMurray for a couple of hours,” Victoria says.

“Most of us work at the oil sands, so we’re so well trained in responding to emergencies. That helped everybody to evacuate the town safely.”

And once the Lizees arrived at Lac La Biche, they found a warm welcome. “They opened up the fishing season early because there are so many people sitting around doing nothing. This town that I’m in is absolutely amazing. The people are so nice. There’s this company that decided they were going to wash dogs for free. A woman overheard us say we needed a phone charger, and she gave us hers. We went for Chinese food and the waitress would not accept the tip,” Victoria says.

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Jamie Osmond lived in Fort McMurray with his wife and four kids for almost 20 years before evacuating.

“The house is gone. We lost everything,” he says.

Now Osmond and his family aren’t sure where to go next. “Our youngest just turned 10 on the ninth. We ended up celebrating his birthday down here,” he says.

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Joyce and John Smith have lived in Fort McMurray for 38 years, after moving there from Australia. Here, they carry the supplies they picked up at a donation outpost in an oil workers camp. The couple didn’t have time to pack before they evacuated Fort McMurray.

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Gilles Nadon is one of 400 people staying at an oil workers camp in Wandering River. After a career working in the oil fields, Nadon retired just a year ago with the plan to relax. Instead of enjoying retirement, he is now dealing with the stress of not being allowed to return home.

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Rosemary Cheecham, her granddaughter Emily, and their dog and cat are staying in a hotel in Edmonton while they wait to be allowed home to Anzac, southeast of Fort McMurray.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I would go to Vancouver, but I don’t think I could drive that far. I’m 72, and that’s a long drive,” she says.

“I’m so depressed; I just want to go home. If we have to stay here for another week, it’s like we’re being punished for something.”

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Twins Jess and Harold Gessner are staying at an oil workers camp in Wandering River. After living in Fort McMurray for 53 years, they left when police knocked on their door and told them to be out in 10 minutes.

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Luke Thwaits, a commercial electrician, watched from across the street as the fire burned down the shop where he lived and kept all his tools. He drove around with his five dogs for days trying to figure out where to stay. Eventually, something caught his eye in the oil workers camp of Wandering River.

“I just happened to see a crowd of lights in the dark, and it was the fire station. Right when I got here they happened to be unloading the trucks of water and food. Emotionally I was really good until I started seeing all these people helping each other. This random guy looked at me and was like, ’You’re all black [from ash]; you really need a shower.’ He gave me a towel and said, ‘Go have a shower.’ I got out of my car and got to have a shower at the fire station, and I was just bawling. I couldn’t believe everyone helping one another,” he says.

“I was here for a few days, and I was scrambling around with the dogs. I disappeared for a few days to talk to farmers, looking for a spot they could stay at. [The oil workers] told me to come back, and they said if I wanted this shed I could have it.”

Thwaits says he now just wants to return to Fort McMurray, where he moved in 2011 looking to settle down. “I don’t care if the oil [industry] goes down,” he says. “I just love this town.”

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Sisters Jocelyn Miko and Jennifer Murphy fled to Boyle, where their parents own land. Jocelyn’s daughter, Emmy, sits on a tricycle she was given at a relief station.

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Dave Harris tried waiting out the fire until he saw flames come over the hill across the street from his house. He left town without packing much and has been staying at the Bold Center in Lac La Biche. A friend confirmed that his house had not burned down, but Harris doesn’t know how bad the smoke or water damage might be.

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Friends Kobie Croucher, Justin Greening, and Christopher Keck (left to right) have been volunteering at an evacuation center.

“We were down there gathering some supplies, some food and stuff, and one of the guys running the volunteers said, ‘Hey, we could use a couple of strong arms around 5:30 to unload a truck,” Croucher says. “We are well off right now, so we can definitely afford to help out. The least we could do.”

Evacuees themselves, the trio is living at cabins the Croucher and Greening families own in the town of Boyle.

“I miss my home. I want to go back, but I can’t,” Keck says. “When I go back it’s not going to be the same city that it was when I left it. There’s going to be so many trees that we’re going to have to cut down. We’ll have to rebuild. It’s going to take forever. It’s really insane not being in my hometown where I’ve grown up. I just want to go back.”

Melody Rowell is an assistant photo editor at National Geographic. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.