After escaping Fort McMurray with little more than the clothes on their backs, some evacuees are questioning when outside officials stepped in to help.
“I feel like the municipality can try but we only have so much,” Crystal Mercredi, who lives in the Thickwood neighbourhood, said. “We’re not close to anything. They can’t send in things right away and I understand that, but this was day three!”
READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Timeline of events
On Sunday, residents of Gregoire were told to be ready to evacuate on short notice due to a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray. On Monday, evacuation orders were issued for Prairie Creek and the Centennial Trailer Park. Shelter-in-place orders were issued for other communities. The fire doubled in size Monday. Tuesday evening, the entire city was ordered out.
“This didn’t happen until day three! Why was there still no help from the province and still no help from the country?
“They knew there were problems,” Mercredi said. “They evacuated a community where my sister-in-law lives the day before and then they let them go back to their house knowing it was going the other way. The fire chief said, ‘it’s going to be 30 degrees, there’s going to be wind and it’s going to get worse,’ and they still chose to tell us not to evacuate.”
Mercredi also thinks the evacuation order should have been given earlier.
“We’re the last street on Thickwood. We border on where Wood Buffalo neighbourhood is,” she said. “That street had just been told they were on mandatory evacuation and so they were putting us on voluntary evacuation, which we kind of thought was crazy.
“If they’re mandatory and we’re one block away, we should probably be mandatory too,” Mercredi said. “We started packing up. Obviously we were going to get out of there too.”
Tim Eaton is also displaced by the wildfire. He was evacuated twice.
“It was there. It was right there. And it was like, gee, why wasn’t there some notification before this?”
“I didn’t know where to go,” Eaton said. “On the radio, they weren’t telling you where to go. First they say ‘go north’ and then, ‘you can’t go north…go south’…we were herded.”
READ MORE: Why the fire engulfed the city within hours
“I was listening to the radio on my drive to Fort McKay,” Mercredi said. “One of our local DJs… he was saying, ‘tell the police to help get the traffic out. We’re all sitting ducks sitting on this road and the fire is coming.'”
These concerns were raised with the premier and the emergency management officials Thursday. They say, considering the unpredictable nature of the wildfire, they’re happy with how the municipality responded.
“When you consider what needed to be done to convince people to get in their vehicles and start driving south – and of course the absolutely understandable stress that would occur when you get on the road and find that you can’t move – these are scary stories and everyone would be scared to hear those stories, but I think the public officials and the emergency responders have done a truly heroic job, they’re still doing it,” Premier Rachel Notley said.
“I think what we have to understand is, within the space of 48 hours over 80,000 people were evacuated from a town that essentially has two roads out of it.”
Scott Long, with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency echoed the premier.
“I thought that the evacuation notices and the mandatory evacuation notices were done as efficiently and as effectively as possible given the changing, dynamic nature of that wildfire. As you can see, it can turn on a dime and it can move relatively rapidly.”
Alberta declared a provincial state of emergency on Wednesday. Notley said the process begins with deferring to emergency responders in the affected municipality. She said Wood Buffalo did an excellent job and that the province was working alongside them. The premier said when people began evacuating to other regions, that’s when provincial emergency coordination experts stepped in.
Other evacuees understand why things went the way they did.
“I think it was organized to a certain degree, but I think they just did not realize just how bad this was,” Michel Godin said. “It was piecemeal.”
“I don’t think they had the big enough picture for what was going on,” he added. “I think now that they know, in the future, they better have something for a catastrophe.”