The sky was thick with black smoke as Sukh Virdi tried to keep his cool in bumper-to-bumper traffic as he made his way to Beacon Hill School in Fort McMurray, Alta.
His wife Manna had called him at work 10 minutes earlier telling him an immediate evacuation order had been announced and the school said someone needed to come pick up the couple’s four-year-old daughter Suhavi from her kindergarten class immediately.
The forests surrounding the small community were on fire and the winds were rapidly pushing the flames toward the Virdis’ neighbourhood.
Once he had located his daughter at school, Virdi headed home to collect his wife and their youngest daughter, Anahi, 2, but the road into his area was jammed with vehicles filled with residents desperately trying to flee.
Seeing no other option, Virdi drove up on the sidewalk around traffic and made his way home.
Because the order to leave had come so quickly, Manna had no time to pack anything.
“At the door there was a package that had recently arrived with summer clothes for the kids,” she said. “So I grabbed that, some fruit, and we ran.”
Two days earlier, on Sunday, May 1, there had been a voluntary evacuation notice issued to residents who lived in the tight-knit family-oriented Beacon Hill area after a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray. So to be safe, that night the Virdis stayed with friends in a condo downtown.
The fire was 1,200 hectares at that time, but was considered under control.
On Monday morning, after learning the fire was moving away from town, Manna and Anahi returned home, Suhavi went to school, and Sukh went to work as usual at a downtown autobody shop.
Manna monitored the fires through social media. On Tuesday, May 3 the smoke seemed to be getting thicker, but there was still no panic. However around noon, mayhem began.
“By 1:45 p.m. the two-lane road into my neighbourhood had become four lanes trying to get out,” said Manna. “People were driving on both sidewalks, but I think we were still in denial that it was going to be that bad.”
Forcing themselves to remain calm in the traffic chaos, the Virdis made their way to the highway and followed orders from the RCMP and fire officials to head north towards the oil fields and away from the city.
Within an hour they received a phone call from a friend saying he had just seen their home on the news and it was gone. All that was left standing was the chimney.
With only half-a-tank of gas, Sukh pulled into the only gas station that was open – the last gas station on the highway – and waited for more than an hour-and-a-half to fill up.
“People were using their arms and clearing full shelves of supplies into open plastic bags or boxes – chips, drinks, whatever they could,” Manna said. Everyone was very orderly and paid for everything, but it was just crazy.”
Back on the highway, the Virdis received word that all the evacuation camps north of the city were full, so Sukh made the decision to cross over the highway median and start heading south back through Fort McMurray toward Edmonton.
“Driving back into Fort McMurray was like driving into Armageddon,” said Manna, describing how flames licked up around their vehicle on both sides of the highway.
”My daughter asked, ‘Mommy, are we going to burn?’ “
The highway traffic was moving at a crawl as they watched large trees near the road burst into flames like giant candles.
Once they had made it to the town of Boyle, three hours away, they felt safe. Although the flames had subsided, the smoke made visibility difficult.
They drove through the night, eventually arriving in Edmonton around 4 a.m. – 14 hours after their ordeal began.
By 10 a.m., Manna and her two girls were on a flight to Vancouver, en route to Surrey where Manna’s mother lives. Sukh waited for his brother to arrive and the two drove their SUV back to Surrey.
The family is now staying with Manna’s mother Simi Sihota, who kept in touch with them as they drove through the night to Edmonton.
“I was calling them every 15 minutes trying to be strong for them, then I would hang up the phone and cry,” said Sihota. “I’m so happy they are all safe. They can rebuild.”
Their insurance claim has been started and they are still receiving salaries from their employers, but the future is unsure.
“We’ll be going back. Fort McMurray was our home,” said Manna. “With the economic problems, there were a lot of apartments available before the fire, but where we’ll live… that’s the biggest question.”
The May 3 fire in Fort McMurray destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings. Nearly 90,000 people were evacuated.
On Monday, CBC was reporting the wildfire was spreading across the forested areas of northern Alberta and was still considered out of control. The blaze, which has burned about 285,000 hectares so far, was moving northeast and was 10 to 12 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border as of Monday afternoon.
Banding together to help Fort Mac
What do you do when you are a band of brothers and you want to make a difference?
You do what you do best: Make music. You put on an concert and invite everyone you know to come and have a great time.
That’s exactly what Aldergrove band Her Brothers is doing in support of the families of Fort McMurray. After seeing the images of homes lost, families fleeing and blazing highways filled with cars, these young guys stood up and said “how can we help?”
With the support of Envision Financial, Surrey-Fleetwood MLA Peter Fassbender and Langley-Aldergrove MP Mark Warawa, these winners of the Langley Has Talent contest are planning an event at Chief Sepass Theatre in Fort Langley on Saturday, May 21 at 7 p.m. The band hopes to raise $15,000.
The federal government has said it will match all donations dollar for dollar, which potentially means $30,000 towards the relief effort.
“That would be significant,” said the band’s front man Gabe Penner.
Putting their best foot forward
Elliot Markillie at Surrey’s A52 Warehouse is coordinating a large clothing and footwear donation for those affected by the Fort McMurray wildfires.
The company has connected with Edmonton Emergency Relief (http://www.eerss.org/), which is on the front lines in Alberta distributing clothing and various other supplies directly to those that need it,” Markillie said.
“We also have partner transportation companies willing to move the shipment from Surrey to Edmonton free of charge,” Markillie said. “Those that contribute will have their donations sent straight to where they’re needed most.”
Markillie said while A52 Warehouse has enough clothing and shoes, what’s needed are the following new items to send: toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, Band-Aids, bedding, sleeping bags, pillows, towels, dish towels, dish cloths, socks and underwear, toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, hand sanitizer, soap, toys, colouring books, crayons and felt pens.
The warehouse will be accepting donations until Thursday, May 19.
As it is an operating business, Markille asks that request that if someone is interested in making a donation, they call at 604-881-0251 to arrange a drop-off.
Help hits the road
A total of nine 53-foot trucks – filled with supplies and clothing worth about $1 million – left Surrey on May 15 bound for Edmonton, Alta.
A one-day collection campaign was held on May 14 at Tamanawis Secondary School, along with drop-off locations in Vancouver and Abbotsford. Organizer Avtar Singh Gill said people came out all day long to drop off new clothing and supplies, and more than 200 volunteers worked hard over the weekend to collect, sort and pack the items.
Gill said next week a group of volunteers will be traveling via bus to Alberta to help those in need.
Lesson in generosity
Last week the Grade 5 class at AJ McLellan Elementary in Cloverdale raised $724 for the people of Fort McMurray by holding a penny candy sale.
“My class was so excited to help out the people of Fort McMurray and the parents of my students donated almost all of the candy,” said teacher Lori Opper.
“When I suggested we do this, my class understood the need in Fort MacMurray immediately and worked tirelessly to decide what to charge for the candy and how many candies should be in each bag in order to make he most money for Fort Mac. Then. they worked in teams to bag the candy, advertise the sale, set up and take down tables, collect money and make change (great for their math skills), count the money collected each day (twice) and itemize it on deposit slips.”
Opper said the students learned they can make a difference.
“Contrary to what many people may think, kids today are very compassionate, caring, wise, empathetic and extremely knowledgeable about the world around them,” Opper said. “It’s an awful thing that has happened to the people of Fort McMurray. Hopefully, one day they can see my class’ fundraising as a quiet silver lining.”
Just being neighbourly
Last week, Michelle Lu and other members of the Fraser Valley Neighbourhood Association raised $5,000 for the Red Cross Alberta fire relief fund.
Another group of Surrey citizens held a fundraising event at the Grand Taj Banquet Hall.
Organizers Puneet Thiara and Karanvir Thiara said more than $15,000 was raised to help fire victims.