Leaving his crane at the Husky Sunrise plant 60 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray, Comox resident David Cowieson grabbed a company truck filled with water and toilet paper and began helping out those who needed it the most.
“To see the panic and fear in the mom’s eyes trying to get their kids out of there, (there was) no hope – it was pretty awful. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
The Valley worker, who has been commuting from Comox to Fort McMurray for 15 years, says the wildfire that has destroyed 1,600 homes and buildings and more than 10,000 hectares this week created “complete mayhem.”
“People were going the wrong ways on exits, and buses trying to get into town and the workers were trying to flee the job sites to try and get into town to save their houses. There were crashes, rollovers, accidents … I’ve never seen anything like that at all.”
Following an overnight flight via Calgary, Cowieson flew into the Comox Valley Airport Wednesday morning, and notes all the workers on site left, so that their housing units could be used as emergency hostels for locals.
“(The fire) closed (Highway) 63 South, so everyone was coming 63 North, and I pulled over on the top of the hill … when I pulled over there was a lot of kids. I’m a single dad here in town, so I wanted to try and get the kids out of town and get them back to camp and give them water and what they needed.
“It was 38 degrees yesterday, pretty hot, so they needed somewhere to go.”
He describes the mood around camp from evacuees as “scared, terrified, (with) no place to go.”
“Their house had burnt down; there was no evacuation plan. There’s only one highway in and out. It wasn’t good.”
On the same flight arriving into Comox, Mike Plautz from Campbell River left his camp at Suncor in Fort Hill, about 90 km north of Fort McMurray for those evacuating to use the facilities.
He said as soon as the wind shifted Tuesday, the fires did as well, and entered the city quickly.
“We went back to camp and the food was rationed because the highway’s shut down. We were lucky to get onto a bus and come back home. There’s still people in camp and the buses aren’t running, so they’re stuck out there for a day or two.”
He and Cowieson are on stand-by, waiting to see when they can return to work.
Kim Cook, sales and events co-ordinator at the Old House Hotel & Spa in Courtenay says while their family home in Eagle Ridge – in the north west area of the city – has not directly been impacted by the fires, her husband, along with their tenants, had to be evacuated Tuesday afternoon.
“Our house is okay, but we’re really concerned … especially by a potential wind change. Our renters were working (when the notice occurred) and my husband had to pack up their rooms and take everything into the car.”
She credits social media for an outpouring of support for evacuees, donations towards the Red Cross, and for new Facebook features such as the ‘safety check’ to let friends and family members within the Fort McMurray area know they are safe.
“We’re watching and waiting to see what happens.”