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Fort McMurray wildfire: Residents recall their escape from ‘The Beast’ on May 3, 2016

Cora Dion and her family escaped the fire on horseback last May. Fletcher Kent, Global News

Exactly 365 days have passed since Cora Dion, Lucinda Fougere and Sarah Smith were forced to flee their homes alongside about 90,000 people as flames ravaged their community.

They all managed to escape “The Beast” with their families, but each did it in a different way.

Dion followed her twin daughters in a truck while they fled the fire on the backs of their horses.

Fougere was celebrating her son’s ninth birthday and escaped with her family of nine to a campground in Athabasca.

Smith was nine months pregnant and made it to a hotel room in Lac La Biche where, days later, she reunited with her boyfriend and they welcomed their first child.

None of them expected the devastation “The Beast” would leave in its wake or how it would shape their future. None of them knew what, if anything, they’d come back to.

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As the community of Fort McMurray approaches one year since that wildfire ripped through neighbourhoods, homes and businesses – and 600,000 hectares of land – residents are looking back on that eventful day and how it changed their lives forever.

Cora Dion

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Cora Dion and her family escaped the fire on horseback last May. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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Cora Dion and her family escaped the fire on horseback last May. Fletcher Kent, Global News

On May 3, 2016, Dion was in her backyard in downtown Fort McMurray with her horses. Her daughters were let out of school early. They saw the smoke billowing in the sky, creeping closer.

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“We were sitting in the backyard around 2:30 or 3 p.m. and we heard explosions coming from Beacon Hill,” Dion recalled. “I think it must have been people’s propane tanks exploding. So we figured we should probably get out at that point.”

But the family had a problem: there were four horses and only a two-horse trailer.

“You don’t really think about it. You just do it. The horses were shockingly calm. It was surprising. It’s like they can feel… ‘I don’t know what’s going on but we’re just going to trust in our humans and we’re just going to do what we need to do.'”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray exodus: 1 mom, 2 daughters, 4 horses, 3 dogs and a cat make wildfire escape

“We were pretty shockingly calm at the time,” Dion said. “I didn’t sleep a lot that night.”

The group found shelter at a concrete plant overnight and started making their way down the crowded Highway 63, with their kids, horses, three dogs and a cat in tow. Dion described the trek as “Noah’s Ark, 2016.”

Watch below: Fort McMurray resident Cora Dion recalls fleeing last spring’s wildfire with her daughters on horseback

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray resident recalls fleeing wildfire with daughters on horseback' Fort McMurray resident recalls fleeing wildfire with daughters on horseback
Fort McMurray resident recalls fleeing wildfire with daughters on horseback – May 3, 2017

At the junction of highways 63 and 881, a stranger with a four-horse trailer pulled up beside them.

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“I don’t know who you are, but load in — let’s get going,” she recalled him saying.

They made it south to safety, dropped the horses off with breeders and stayed with Dion’s dad in Edmonton.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Pet owners desperate to save animals left behind

Looking back now, Dion said it’s all very surreal.

“I thought they were going to put it out,” Dion said. “They’d put it out and everything was going to be fine.”

“I just never would have in a million years thought it was possible for a forest fire to come into town like that and devastate so much of the city.”

Lucinda Fougere

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Lucinda Fougere and her family were celebrating her son's birthday when the evacuation order was issued. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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Lucinda Fougere and her family were celebrating her son's birthday when the evacuation order was issued. Fletcher Kent, Global News

On May 3, 2016, Fougere was running around trying to set everything up for her son TJ’s ninth birthday. But soon, the fire came too close for comfort.

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By lunchtime, flames were licking at the trees bordering their home in Thickwood and had jumped the river.

“I snapped a picture, texted it to my husband and said: ‘Meet me at the kids’ school. We’ve got to get out of here. We’re not staying put.”

She had to break the news to TJ that his birthday party was cancelled and instead, the family was getting out of town.

“I stood there in the driveway for about five seconds thinking: this could be the last time I’m at my house. What do I have to get?”

Watch below: Fort McMurray resident Lucinda Fougere contemplated leaving northern Alberta community after last spring’s wildfire but said she ‘missed home’

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray resident contemplated leaving after wildfire but ‘missed home’' Fort McMurray resident contemplated leaving after wildfire but ‘missed home’
Fort McMurray resident contemplated leaving after wildfire but ‘missed home’ – May 3, 2017

She grabbed medicine for her daughter along with a blanket and some toys.

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“We left. That was it. I didn’t take toothbrushes or pyjamas. I was just thinking about what the kids wanted.”

Ironically, Fougere’s oldest son was taking a Greyhound bus from Edmonton where he lived to Fort McMurray for his younger brother’s birthday. She tried to reach him by phone for an hour before getting through.

“It was pretty scary. We sat around for an extra hour and a half wondering if we could get out of town… I wasn’t going to leave without all of my children.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Why the fire engulfed the city within hours

The whole extended family decided to head to Athabasca where they had a camper stored, but it soon dawned on Fougere that she had zero supplies.

“I still get teary-eyed when I think about this,” she said. “There’s an ‘Athabasca Anything Goes’ [page] on Facebook. I posted: ‘Family of nine on their way to Athabasca.’

“When we got to our camper, there were like five or six pickup trucks parked there. There were bags of clothes. Somebody baked a cake for my son. They brought him a baseball bat and a glove. We had a birthday party right there in the campsite… It was beautiful. I didn’t know people cared so much about someone they didn’t know.”

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Despite all the uncertainty and loss, they had each other and everyone was safe.

WATCH: Athabasca residents open their hearts to Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees 

“It was perfect,” Fougere said. “It was the perfect birthday party… with my kids and my grand kids and a whole bunch of strangers I didn’t know. It was really a wonderful day.”

After the fire, Fougere drove her family back to her hometown of Nova Scotia. But they soon realized Fort McMurray had truly become their new home and moved back shortly after Christmas.

“This is my home. This is where we have to be.”

Sarah Smith

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Ryker Mackay , seen here with his parents Sarah Smith and Kyle MacKay, loves fire trucks. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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Ryker Mackay , seen here with his parents Sarah Smith and Kyle MacKay, loves fire trucks. Fletcher Kent, Global News

On May 3, 2016, Smith was nine months pregnant.

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Less than a week away from her due date, she was in her home in Abasand when she got a frantic call from her boyfriend Kyle Mackay.

“I opened the curtains, looked out the back window and the apartment building across from us was almost already on fire,” Smith recalled.

WATCH: ‘This is insane’: Dramatic video shows Fort McMurray residents fleeing raging wildfire 

Smith said Lac La Biche was the closest hotel with a room available, so that’s where she headed.

Mackay was at work when the evacuation order expanded. He was trying to drive out of the city but was stranded downtown.

“Everything was on fire around me at that point… and my phone died. I walked to Mac Island and then I left from Mac Island on city transit and went south to Anzac.”

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“I was pretty lost and confused,” Mackay said. “I didn’t even know where she was or if she made it out safe.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray evacuees in Lac La Biche anxious to return home 

The next day, he met up with a co-worker who drove him to Lac La Biche to meet up with Smith. Just in time, too.

“Two days after he made it to Lac La Biche… If he would have went to the camps they had up north, he would have missed [Ryker’s] birth,” Smith said.

READ MORE: It’s a boy! Fort McMurray wildfire evacuee gives birth at Lac La Biche hospital 

The young couple went through just about every emotion possible in the span of a few days.

“I was having a baby and our city was burning down at the same time, really,” Smith said. “I was in shock.”

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Watch below: Fort McMurray mom Sarah Smith talks about her ‘fire baby’ one year after the May 2016 wildfire 

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray mom talks about her ‘fire baby’ one year after wildfire' Fort McMurray mom talks about her ‘fire baby’ one year after wildfire
Fort McMurray mom talks about her ‘fire baby’ one year after wildfire – May 3, 2017

Still, the realities of being a new mom helped keep things in perspective.

“No matter what happened — if we lost everything, if we didn’t — I’d have to be strong anyway. I think he kind of helped our family and people around us push through what was happening,” Smith said.

The last year has been rough on the family. They’ve had to start over — twice. The house they were living in in Lac La Biche was robbed in September. Then, after they moved back to Fort McMurray, there was a fire in the house they were renting.

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“We’ve gone through so much and we’ve always made it,” Smith said.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: photo of newborn pays tribute to firefighters 

When they look back on last May, they have immense gratitude for the firefighters who worked so hard to get everyone out safely. In fact, the theme of their son’s first birthday party will be fire trucks.

“It’ll always be a part of his history. He’ll know the story. He’ll know how he came into this world and he’ll have all the newspaper clippings and all his fire truck toys to prove it.”

And, the little family has no plans to move away from Fort McMurray.

“This is definitely the place I want to be,” Mackay said. “I can’t see living anywhere else.”

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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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One year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, neighbourhoods continue the rebuilding process. Fletcher Kent, Global News
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An empty lot in the Fort McMurray, Alta. neighbourhood of Beacon Hill where Pollyanna McBain's home once stood before being consumed by last May's wildfire. Reid Fiest / Global News
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Suncor Energy's Firebag Airport became an evacuation centre when Fort McMurray evacuated. (Reid Fiest/Global News). (Reid Fiest/Global News)

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