Pregnant mother recounts grisly escape from wildfire
Wednesday, May 4, 2016, 4:21 PM -
Two hours. That was all Rochelle Young and her family had to pack up whatever they could find of sentimental value before the mandatory evacuation order was issued for their neighbouring subdivision. At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Young and her husband left their home along with their live-in nanny, two sons -- ages 5 and 7 -- their two cats, one dog, and whatever sentimental valuables they could fit into two cars.
Young and her family were among the estimated 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray that were forced to flee their homes in the wake of a raging wildfire. When news of the fire first emerged, Young -- who is nine-months pregnant -- never imagined the devastating impacts would reach her family.
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“We knew that there had been a fire, but the area of the city we were in is on the other side of a pretty large river," Young told The Weather Network. “I didn’t expect that we would be in that kind of danger.”
But late Tuesday morning, the fire showed no signs of waning. In fact, it crossed the river and was now on the other side of the bridge. When Young heard the news, it was the first indication that she had to get out.
“At 2 o’clock I got a text from my children’s school saying to come pick up my kids,” she recalls. After doing so, the mother of two drove home and got a hold of her husband and asked him to pack anything of importance. Though her region wasn’t under evacuation yet, Young could tell by the way the fire was travelling that it was coming her way and that “[her] turn would come.”
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But after buckling up, Young realized there was nowhere to go.
Traffic wasn’t moving. By the time they finally turned out of their subdivision onto Confederation Way, her car could only move inches at a time. It was then that Young looked in her side mirror.
Her voice muffled by tears, Young explains that this is the moment that she saw the flames.
“So up until that point it had just been smoke, right? And the flames were at the edge of the forest. So all it is, is just flames and then cars. And I thought ‘oh my God, we’re not moving anywhere, are we just supposed to sit here and let this fire come? What’s supposed to happen?’”
With her two sons in the back seat, Young decided to drive up on the sidewalk. Many drivers did the same.
Her husband was in a separate vehicle with her pets, so she called him and they both went up onto the sidewalk. “It felt like a relief to get up ahead, but it took us 3 hours just to get out of Timberlea – what’s normally a 10 or 15 minute drive,” Young said.
Her children began to get scared as the smoke became more apparent. “There [were] a couple of little meltdowns,” Young says. “It was very stressful.”
Getting out of Timberlea, Fort McMurray, was less than half the battle. When Young and her family reached Highway 63 – their only route out of the area – they had to decide whether they would go north or south. Young recalls speaking with an RCMP officer at the top of the hill who couldn’t give much assistance. When asked which way to go, he said his radio had been dead for two hours.
Following prior advice, the family headed north. Roughly 7 hours later, the journey to the oil-sands camp where Young and her husband work, was complete.
“Everything seemed like it was taking forever but it was happening so fast at the same time. We left our house at 4:30 p.m. and by the time we got to the camp it was 11 or 12 in the night,” Young says. The entire journey was a mere 35-kilometre drive.
They’ve since settled in as comfortably as possible in a space with no access to water.
“Yesterday our only focus was getting out,” Young says. “Today it’s ‘okay, what do we do now?’ I’ve got to feed my kids, and I am a little bit worried about going into labour.”
There’s a lot of confusion about how to proceed. Many have left the camps on advice to head south for Edmonton, but others were also advised it’s best to stay where they are.
“I’ve heard that there’s a lot of resources coming up which is really encouraging,” Young says. “
Young has heard through the grapevine that the fire she spotted near her home didn’t actually engulf any of the homes in the area.
“I know several people who lost everything. They didn’t have a chance to grab more than a laundry basket. So we’re grateful. And we’re hoping that we have a home to go back to – and that I don’t go into labour.” Young’s two sons were born early.
“People have it much worse than us so I’m trying to be thankful.”
The fire has enveloped more than 10,000 hectares in a matter of two days, swallowing homes and buildings, now entering the downtown area.