US & Canada

'It just doesn't seem real': Fort McMurray residents flee their homes

Smoke fills the air as people drive on a road in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Image copyright AP
Image caption The entire population of Fort McMurray - 80,000 people - has been forced to flee as fire engulfs the town

Heather Snow's house is still standing but it might not be by nightfall. And despite being two hours' drive away, Ms Snow will know instantly if her home succumbs to the fire that is burning up the city of Fort McMurray in Canada

A very modern security system linked to her phone will buzz to let her and her husband Chris know that a very primitive force has reached their doorstep.

A live feed from the security cameras around the house will even allow them to watch it burn down, if they can bear it. Ms Snow has been checking the app every couple of minutes.

"We can see our kitchen and our living room and the front door," she said. "We'll be able to watch the whole middle floor burning down, well until the camera burns up."

The house is the Snows' first home together and they would be "devastated" to lose it, she said. "When I look at pictures of the house now, I can't even imagine. It just doesn't seem real."

Image copyright AP
Image caption The blaze moved quickly towards Fort McMurray, forcing a mandatory evacuation

Ms Snow left in a hurry, with her son, her dogs, and a bag full of clothes. But it didn't occur to her when she rushed out the door that it might be the last time she saw her home.

Luckily, the Snows had a new trailer parked up in a campsite in Wandering River, 200km (120 miles) from Fort McMurray. Her extended family has decamped to the site, some sleeping in the truck and some in tents.

Their future is clouded by uncertainty, whether the house stands or falls, said Ms Snow. "If the house is still standing there, are we going to go back to a ghost town? And if it's burned to the ground, do we pick up and move somewhere else?

"We have no idea. We just have to take things hour by hour."

'Like watching your past disappear'

For those without trailers or relatives nearby, the people of Alberta have opened their homes, advertising spare rooms, beds, and tents on Facebook.

Among them is an ex-resident of Fort McMurray, Lisa Kroeger-Repchuk. Her old family house has gone, her sons' old school has gone, the hockey rink has gone, more or less the whole area - Beacon Hill - has gone.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Thousands have been forced to flee to temporary shelters such as school gyms

The Kroeger-Repchuks have four families on the way. Mrs Kroeger-Repchuk said she had been overwhelmed with offers of food and support from people who know they have opened their home.

The family has been glued to the TV, watching their old neighbourhood go up in smoke, she said.

"It's like watching part of your past disappear. I lived in Fort Mac and I love it up there. That community gives all, it gives everything to new people. It's an amazing place to raise your kids.

"I always felt welcome there. It's so devastating what these people are going through."

'I could feel the heat'

As the fire began to spread out of control, Tyson - who asked that we didn't use his full name - rushed straight to Fort McMurray's hospital, where his mother was an inpatient.

When he got there, ash was in the air and the flames were close enough for him to feel the heat on his face. With staff and relatives pitching in, the hospital was evacuated and patients were helped onto buses.

"But when we were on the buses, that's when the communication broke down," he said. "The nurses weren't talking to each other and the correct medication wasn't on the correct buses".

Tyson's mother was left without her vital pain medication, and the roads were gridlocked. After eight hours on the bus, she was flown from a triage site to a hospital in Edmonton.

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Media captionSzymon Bicz had to leave most of his belongings behind in Fort McMurray

Thousands of Fort McMurray residents took to the roads out of town as the fire spread. Szymon Bicz was at work listening to the radio when the flames seemed to be picking up speed. He dashed back to his house, grabbed his passport and some clothes, and jumped in his car.

"The smoke was really overpowering. It was a terrifying experience," he said.

"Thick black smoke was closing in and surrounded the car. People were driving up on paths and grass verges just to get out of there. I'm hoping my rented house is still intact but I just don't know.

"The whole region is at risk. It's absolutely catastrophic, but people here are big-hearted. Volunteers on the highway to Edmonton are giving food and water as required."


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