Cindy White along with her son, Dawson, and her mother, Celine Desaulniers, were one of the many families evacuated from the District of Timberlea in the Fort McMurray area on May 10.
“I was at Timberlea Elementary picking up my grandson when the warning went out on the radio,” Celine recounts.
She had been living in Timberlea for the past seven weeks helping Cindy with her in home-based income tax business.
“First time I had ever heard (the evacuation announcement) before. I was in shock. We went home, grabbed what we could and left.”
On the previous night (May 9), Cindy saw the fire still moving southwest of the city.
However, Dawson was concerned about a potential evacuation.
“I was pretty scared, but mom and grandma kept me going.”
Cindy says she told him to pack a bag of his prized possessions for peace of mind.
“I packed a bag as well, but I felt that there was no threat.”
However, the fire changed direction the following morning and began moving north and eventually leapt over the Athabasca River. This caused the evacuation notice for the remaining districts of Fort McMurray.
“The thing that struck me was, when I heard the emergency warning for real, you just don’t expect it,” Cindy recounts.
“We never thought [the fire] would be able to jump the river. By the time I heard the warning, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge.”
After they took an hour to load their van, they began to drive out of town. It took the family more than two hours to go seven blocks down Confederation Way towards Highway 63 due to all the other evacuees.
“We saw a lady riding her horse out of town,” says Celine. “There were a few people riding their animals out of town.”
Due to the delay, however, Cindy says she believes this worked in their favour.
“As we moved slowly towards Highway 63, we could see they were sending people north. I didn’t want to go north.”
“But, literally minutes before we got to the RCMP officer directing everyone, the direction of traffic changed to go south. The officer said it was grid locked moving north, so now they were sending people south.”
The family then saw all four lanes of the highway, both south and north bound, converging into one giant south-bound lane.
Despite everything, Cindy and Celine commended both the evacuating residents and the evacuation authorities for their actions during the incident.
“Overall, the fact they got 80,000 people out was amazing,” Cindy notes.
“There was no panic, no road rage. Even though we were only going 20 km/h at most, people still followed the rules of the road.”
During their drive south, they watched the fire rising up behind them as well as some establishments burning along the way, but Cindy says that it could have been worse.
“It was really smokey but we weren’t in as bad of a situation as some people were on Beacon Hill Drive. I would have been terrified if I was them.”
As far as the family knows, their home is still standing. Their insurance company sent in drones to inspect the area after the evacuation.
“We just have to wait for two weeks before any sort of schedule is released.”
In the meantime, Cindy and her family are thankful for being able to stay with her parents in 100 Mile House.
“We’ve got family for support and we are glad for that.”