There’s one road in and one road out of Fort McMurray, and that one road was gridlocked. The whole southern lane crowded with cars too slow to outpace clouds of smoke chasing them from the north. The sky, hardly visible through the smoke, was a sea of flames three hundred feet tall in the boreal forest surrounding my city. My city that had turned black and orange in an instant. My city on fire.
Ten minutes ago, I’d arrived at Fire Hall 5 on my afternoon off. When I was called in, the town was hazy but visible and the highway lightly trafficked. By the time I’d buttoned my shirt, laced my duty boots and packed my bunker gear as a precaution, the winds had quickened to sixty kilometres per hour and shifted northeast towards us. I was racing out in a fire engine before the bay door touched the rafters, driving alone into the inferno.
Turning onto the highway with sirens blaring, I dodged cars trying to evacuate from the city. They were climbing from the ditches, barrelling across parking lots and jumping curbs as flakes of burning ember rained on them. The way out of town was bumper-to-bumper and side-door-to-side-door, five lanes of vehicles on a three-lane road, and the northbound route was filling with southbound traffic too. I crushed the air-horn button and swerved into the centre lane, sharing a millisecond of eye contact with the drivers I passed, enough for me to see the fear in their eyes. And now I’d find out for myself what it was they had seen.
The radio hissed. “Captain Asher, it’s Training Officer Kratochvil.” “Yeah, go,” I snapped back.
“I saw you leaving the hall. I’ve got the new recruits. We’re following you in.” A white Ford F-150 swerved behind me, the bed filled with a crew of kneeling firefighters holding on for their lives. “Where are we going?”
“Beacon Hill.” That’s where my kids go to school. The radio hissed with other chatter, other neighbourhoods under threat, but everything—reports, sirens, honking, the world—it all muted as I imagined Taya and Aidan’s classrooms filling with smoke.
My wife and I had received the email from their elementary school, asking for parents to evacuate the students. She’d have to come from the grocery store downtown, but judging from the surrounding mayhem, any town road would be equally gridlocked. The lineup for fuel at gas stations flanking the highway snaked onto arterial streets; the Flying J gas station had no lineup because it was on fire. Roadside onlookers stood in harm’s way, gobsmacked by flames on the filling station’s roof, flames in the grass, flames across the western horizon. Trees lit up ten at a time as an inferno crested down the valley, carrying flames tall as cellphone towers searing in the hills. Cars scraped each other and people ran up and down the sides of the roads. It wasn’t just people in a panic—deer pushed out of the bush by the heat were galloping into town, nearly causing road accidents.
“Melanie! Mel!” I shouted into my cellphone. Her voice was too faint to hear above the sirens, horns and roaring winds. “Did you get them?”
She said something about a traffic jam at Save-On-Foods.
“The fire’s hit Beacon Hill. Call Pam! Call Pam!” Pam is our neighbour and the school librarian. She could bring them home.
“I tried, I tried, I tried.” Melanie repeated it enough times that I heard it clearly. I told her I loved her and tossed the phone on the passenger seat.
As I approached the intersection of Beacon Hill Drive—the neighbourhood’s single entry and exit point, like Highway 63—it was utter chaos. Police officers directing traffic in respirator masks were trying to keep control and move vehicles out. My air horn cleared a narrow path for me to cut through the traffic and enter Beacon Hill. The crew tried to follow my tracks but couldn’t keep up. In the haze, I had no clue where I was going until I spotted a school-zone sign.
Good Shepherd School is across from the hill bank, and far from the Hangingstone River, where the wildfire was thought to be contained. But the blaze had done the impossible and jumped two rivers, climbed up the valley and crawled a hundred metres from the only road protecting the children. I braked by the main doors, in the school bus lane. The playgrounds and soccer fields were quiet. The parking lot was empty. It was Tuesday afternoon, but it looked like a Sunday, so I left.
The smoke had thickened, but blew away from me for a clearer sightline. It was brown from the spruce and poplar engulfed by the blaze. I prayed it didn’t go black, a chemical reaction from burning synthetics, which could only mean that the fire had touched homes.
Friends’ homes. Family’s homes. Homes I grew up in. Homes I built with my own two hands as a contractor in my spare time.
As flaming debris and branches blew across the windshield, I stopped myself from thinking of my house on the other side of town, a palatial bungalow I’d spent three years on, hammering every nail and loading every beam. We’d moved in a year ago, and just that morning I’d finally started landscaping. My stomach turned, but I had to focus on the job in front me.
Choppers and tankers whirred over the block of mid-century bungalows around me. They were unscathed, for now, but flames at the greenbelt on the edge of the valley crowned in the spruces, burning their canopies off like dandelion heads. They dropped to earth before torching the trunks. All down the block, residents stuffed their vehicles with bags, pet kennels and kids. Husbands and wives bumped into each other while they bolted in and out of their houses with whatever they could think of, forgetting whatever they’d soon regret.
I parked by a red hydrant near where the fire was crowing out of the trees and heading towards the houses. I flicked the switch for the monitor, and the deluge gun attached to the roof showered the trees. There were 2,000 litres in the tank, but with 4,800 litres sprayed per minute that wouldn’t get me far. I radioed dispatch: “Dispatch, this is Captain Asher.”
“Captain Asher, go for dispatch,” she responded.
“Dispatch, Captain Asher. I’m on Pumper 310, all by myself, on the corner of Beacon Hill Drive and Beaver Hill Crescent, setting up for fire attack.”
“Captain Asher, dispatch. Acknowledge.”
I jumped to the pavement and sprinted to the back cabinet for a large inlet hose that was pre-plugged into the truck’s tank for a fast connection. Wrench in hand, I hoisted it over my shoulder and pulled it to the hydrant through a blizzard of embers and burning spruce needles. I popped off the steamer port, connected it and turned the nut atop the hydrant. It takes sixteen rotations to open the valve.
One, two, three . . .
Sweat dripped on my sleeves. My eyes stung. I coughed into my arm and shielded my face from the unbearable heat.
Seven, eight, nine . . .
The only sound was windswept flames, roaring like a rolling train that drowned out the sirens and yelling.
Twelve, thirteen, fourteen . . .
Just then, an ember the size of a softball hurtled across the road and smashed through a front window. Flames swallowed the curtains, and with a last twist of the wrench, I watched black smoke engulf the living room.