Alumni applaud helping hands while fleeing fires

Jodi’s Photography // Special to Western News

Less than two hours after arriving home from the hospital, first-time parents Dan and Lindsay FitzGerald, along with their daughter, Tenley, all of Fort McMurray, Alta., were told to evacuate immediately as devastating wildfires bore down on their neighbourhood. They are currently staying with family in southwestern Ontario.

The lives of Dan and Lindsay FitzGerald went from joy to despair within a span of 24 hours.

The Fort McMurray, Alta., alumni couple, Dan, BA’09 (Political Science & Government), and Lindsay, BHSc’09, welcomed their daughter, Tenley, into the world on May 2. Less than two hours after arriving home from the hospital the next day, the first-time parents were told to evacuate immediately as devastating wildfires closed in on their neighbourhood.

“As I laid down on the couch with Tenley, Lindsay got a call from a friend asking us if we knew what’s going on, that we should start thinking about packing up the house because there are evacuation notices being released in a number of neighbourhoods,” said Dan, a city planner in Fort McMurray.

“The fire had been burning since Friday. We could certainly see it on the horizon. But the last report we heard was the fire was not a threat to the city – so at that point everything was safe and sound. We were really focusing on ourselves and the new baby. When we got a call around 2-2:30 p.m. that said they were evacuating people because of the fires starting to come into the city, it became very real at that point. I looked at my phone; I had about 25 missed called from co-workers warning me. For me, the initial thought was where to go? Whatever we were going to do we just need to pack up and go somewhere.”

A raging wildfire consumes the forest next to Highway 63, only 24 km south of Fort McMurray on May 7. The 'Beast,' as it was called by Wood Buffalo Fire Chief Darby Allen, was a 1,500-square-kilometre inferno that prompted the mass evacuation of nearly 90,000 people from the northern Alberta city.

Chris Schwarz // Government of AlbertaA raging wildfire consumes the forest next to Highway 63, only 24 km south of Fort McMurray on May 7. The ‘Beast,’ as it was called by Wood Buffalo Fire Chief Darby Allen, was a 1,500-square-kilometre inferno that prompted the mass evacuation of nearly 90,000 people from the northern Alberta city.

As of May 23, the Alberta wildfires have consumed more than 523,000 hectares, or almost three times the size of Toronto. Sixteen wildfires are still active – one of them out of control – as more than 1,934 firefighters, 102 helicopters, 25 air tankers and 255 pieces of heavy equipment continue to battle the blazes around the clock.

Dan met Lindsay in residence at Western – he was 4 West and she was 4 South in Delaware Hall. With so much uncertainty and doubt the last few weeks, the arrival of their daughter has been a blessing in disguise.

“She is doing really well. All things considered, and everything she has had to go through at such a young age, she’s a real trooper. As for us, we’re flying by the seat of our pants,” Dan laughed. “It has made us stronger as a family – us needing to come together. With Tenley, for our family and friends, she has been a beacon of light to take everyone’s focus off what has been happening in Fort Mac. It has been a wonderful distraction to have her around, to focus our attention on her, rather than continually watching the news for updates of what was happening back home.”

With minutes to grab whatever they could, including the family dog, Dan made a call to friends in Calgary to see if they could stay with them, but access to roads were blocked as fire raged across the highway. With a group of friends and co-workers, a three-car convoy headed toward the small town of Athabasca. Usually a three-and-a-half-hour drive, it took them 14 hours to get there.

“We sat on our residential road trying to get on a main collector in Fort Mac for about an hour and a half,” Dan said. “It was a difficult situation to be in. But we tried to remain as positive and as calm as possible having a new baby with us. Lindsay was sitting in the back focused on Tenley; I was focused on trying to get us out of the city. As a planner I know the city quite well; I know the roads, the routes, so I had an evacuation plan in my head of how to get out. But the traffic wouldn’t let us do it at all.”

The family spent a couple of nights in Athabasca before heading to Edmonton and, finally, to St. Albert’s, northwest of Edmonton, where they stayed with friends for a few days.

Then, Dan and Lindsay received a wonderful call out of the blue. A childhood friend of Lindsay’s, now a representative at WestJet, offered them a free flight back to Ontario to stay with family. Dan is from Chatham; Lindsay is from Kerwood, outside Strathroy.

WestJet also made a donation to a GoFundMe page a friend of Lindsay’s had set up.

“The amount of thoughts and prayers we received, donations and everything, has been absolutely astounding. It has been amazing the amount of support we have received ever since having to leave Fort McMurray,” said Dan, adding friends from elementary school they haven’t seen in 20 years were messaging with offers of help.

“They were saying, ‘I know so-and-so here; I have family in Edmonton; I have family in Calgary.’ It was astounding.”

When they left home in such a hurry, they were unable to bring much. No matter, people dropped off clothes for Tenley and supplies for the couple.

“It has been amazing to see how people come together and support you during times of need,” Dan said.

While with family in Ontario, Dan and Lindsay cannot but help think of home. With the help of workers from the Regional Emergency Operational Centre in Alberta, who took photographs of their neighbourhood, they confirmed their home had been spared.

“It is still there; our home is still standing,” Dan said. “Obviously, we don’t know what sort of damage there might be at this point, but we know our home is still there and our memories are still there. We are excited to get back and help others.”

A massive wildfire rages May 4, near Anzac, Alberta, a hamlet 48 km southwest of Fort McMurray. The community and surrounding area was evacuated.

Chris Schwarz // Government of AlbertaA massive wildfire rages May 4, near Anzac, Alberta, a hamlet 48 km southwest of Fort McMurray. The community and surrounding area was evacuated.

A voluntary, phased re-entry for the safe return of Fort McMurray residents will begin June 1, if future wildfire conditions do not delay restoration efforts. The re-entry schedule and details for residents will be available online at emergency.alberta.ca. Re-entry should be complete by June 15.

“Many hazards remain in Fort McMurray. We need to address them before it’s safe for residents to return home,” said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. “We’ve developed a phased and voluntary re-entry plan with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo that begins with the least damaged areas.”

Air quality will also play a role when it comes to re-entry. The air-quality index is normally measured on a scale of 1 (the safest) to 10 (dangerous) – at one point it was 38.

“It will be hard to go back there and see what was once such an amazing community, with amazing people, devastated by the fires. It will take time for re-development, but with my position in the development approval office I’m excited that I can go back and help with the process to rebuild the city; help in any way I can, help our friends that have lost everything.

“We are focused on our family right now but in the back of my mind, and as much as we love being here (Ontario), we want to get back to help wherever we can and get people back in their homes.”

So for the next week or so, Dan and Lindsay will continue to enjoy the time with family and friends. And, one day, Tenley will learn of her first few days.

“People keep telling me the story you’re going to tell Tenley one day is going to be amazing,” Dan said.