Kamloops residents narrowly escape fire in Fort McMurray

By James Peters / Chad Klassen / Chad Harris
May 4, 2016 - 10:51am Updated: May 4, 2016 - 10:48pm

►"The whole neighbourhood was like armageddon." Kamloops man escapes Fort McMurray

EDMONTON, AB — A Kamloops man who works in the oilpatch says he was in Barriere for the wildfires of 2003, and what he saw yesterday was on a much larger scale.

Wes Bell works in Mildred Lake, about 45 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray.

He spends 14 days at work and the next 14 at home in Kamloops.

Bell was sleeping in his downtown Fort McMurray apartment yesterday afternoon when his roommate woke him up and told him to look at the flames outside, encroaching on the community.

A short time later, they learned the downtown had been evacuated.

Bell says the two made the decision to head north to their worksite, where Finning was offering to put people up.

"It was really, like nothing I've ever experienced before. There were cars everywhere, people were running out of fuel," explained Bell. "When we were driving to work, there was fire on both sides of the highway, (my roommate and I) were both looking at each other like, 'We're supposed to be out here? What's going on?' It was worse when I was driving South, five or six hours later." 

Bell later decided to drive to Edmonton, and saw the destruction of several Fort McMurray subdivisions.

He says he has nothing but praise for emergency officials and for his employer, Finning, who was housing evacuees and giving them fuel at no charge.


►Fleeing the flames; Former Kamloops resident describes her escape

WANDERING RIVER, AB — A former Kamloops resident who moved to Fort McMurray two years ago says getting out of the city yesterday afternoon was several hours of sheer panic.

Natasha Hartson says she had time to pack up some clothes and a few items from her home in the northern end of the city, before joining her husband and heading out.

Hartson says the mass evacuation was like nothing she has ever seen.

"I've never seen anything like it. It felt like the apocalypse. People were driving on the sides of the road," said Hartson, adding,  "One of our dear friends was downtown, and she couldn't get to us, and she was separated from her husband. She was literally hitchhiking on the side of the road, trying to get into someone car with her dogs and a backpack." 

Hartson says she believes her home is unscathed, but the adjacent neighbourhood, which she says are as close as Sahali and Aberdeen, was torched.

►Former Fort McMurray resident living in Kamloops 'beside' himself

KAMLOOPS, BC — In just 24 hours, Fort McMurray has changed forever. All 80,000 people evacuated as fire engulfs the town. 

It's been tough to watch for many across the country, including Mikey Wheeler-Johnson, who now lives in Kamloops but was born and raised in Fort McMurray. He worked for the city for seven years. 

He can't believe what is unfolding.

"I cried into my breakfast this morning because I'm beside myself," says Wheeler-Johnson, who's family home was destroyed by the fire. "It's surreal. You see all the images of your home neighbourhood burning down. It's selfish for me, because it's just a bunch of memories at this point, but still I've got a lot of friends and family that lives there."

Wheeler-Johnson says some friends that had been separated from their families are reunited, but it was difficult for them to even leave town.

"They barely made it out. They were driving through raining fire going up Highway 63," he says. "He doesn't deal with bad situations very well in the first place, so you can't imagine how everyone is feeling up there. Where do you go from here?"

Mikey has been texting back and forth with friends, opening his door and encouraging them to make the trek to Kamloops if need be. 

But he also knows friends and others escaping Fort McMurray will get offers along the way. 

"If you spend time in that community, you'll always be apart of that community," says Wheeler-Johnson. "So even when you move away, there's people in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary, spread out all over Alberta and B.C., and all the way to Newfoundland. I know those people are getting offers in every community they hit as they leave Fort McMurray to stay. There's even people driving up Highway 63 to get people gas and food and water. It's a sense of community that's really heartwarming about the whole thing." 


FURTHER READING: Trudeau offers full federal assistance to fire-stricken Fort McMurray

FURTHER READING: Raging wildfire in Alberta comes five years after Slave Lake blaze

FURTHER READING: Wildfire forces Shell Canada to shut down oilsands mining project

FURTHER READING: In midst of Fort McMurray devastation, a baby is born at Noralta Lodge


If you’re concerned about family or friends in the Fort McMurray area, call 1-888-350-6070. The Red Cross has set up a call centre to connect loved ones. The organization is also accepting donations as it starts to prepare to assist the many people who have lost their homes. Donors can call 1-800-418-1111, visit redcross.ca, or text “redcross” to 30333 to make a $5 donation from your cellphone.

Crews scramble as Fort McMurray fire explodes in size, continues to threaten