Jason Edmondson has experienced a roller coaster of emotions the past few days, ever since the former Revelstoke resident had to flee his Fort McMurray home.
“We’re in a daze,” he told me on the phone from a friend’s house in Calgary. “There’s moments of clearness, then it’s just a complete daze.”
Edmondson grew up in Revelstoke but has lived in Fort McMurray for the past eight years, where he works for Suncor. His mother lives in Revelstoke and he has many friends here.
Videos of his escape from the fires that have devastated Fort McMurray have been picked up by the national media. One shows him and his girlfriend, Ginny Rice, approaching a wall of flames as they turn onto Highway 63 south. A second video shows them driving off into a glowing wall of smoke. It’s a surreal scene. In the first video, they’re cursing in shock and disbelief at the situation. As they drive into the smoke, they’re almost silent, with only the radio playing as the video ends.
“I jumped out of an airplane and that’s quite a rush. That was a cake walk compared to this,” Edmondson told me. “The adrenaline and fear and confusion, there’s too much going on in your head to process at one time.”
Fort McMurray was evacuated on Tuesday when a raging wildfire overwhelmed firefighters and engulfed the city. It was the largest evacuation in Canadian history and the blaze continues to grow.
Edmondson was at the bank on Tuesday morning when he first heard that parts of the city were being evacuated. He went back to his home in the Waterways neighbourhood to get his girlfriend. They went to pick up a prescription for their dog, but by the time they got back, the evacuation notice was in full effect. A drive that normally took 10 minutes took more than an hour.
They rushed home to pack up as much as they could.
“Pretty much the whole neighbourhood was in a panic throwing everything they could into their vehicles,” he said. They went inside to pack up and grab the dogs. When Edmondson went back outside, he could hear the roar of the flames. He yelled at his girlfriend that they have to leave.
“That was a pretty scary moment,” he said.
They got in their car and turned out of the trailer park, leaving their cats behind. Only then could they see the flames not much more than 100 metres away. The whole hillside near his home was on fire. They could feel the intense heat of the flames around them.
“The heat, then noise, then the sights and sounds of that fire — it felt like you were in it,” he said.
Edmondson and his girlfriend were somewhat fortunate in that they beat the main rush of traffic out of town. They were able to head south on Highway 63 and fill their tank with gas, unlike so many others who had to abandon their vehicles.
The drive out was chaotic, with cars in all lanes, on the shoulder and the median, but they were able to get out smoothly compared to what thousands of others experienced. Police were at every intersection directing traffic and emergency personnel were heading the other way, towards the flames.
They made it south and are now staying with friends in Calgary.
I asked Edmondson what they lost. “Everything,” he replied. I re-phrased my question: “What did you save?”
“Imagine trying to pack your life up in five minutes, trying to figure out what to to take and what not to take,” he said. “It was tough knowing that my cats were there. It’s still really hard.”
The trailer he was renting is likely gone, along with everything in it. According to reports, 90 per cent of the homes in the Waterways neighbourhood were lost. He got out with a few changes of clothes, his laptop, a toothbrush and some heirlooms from his grandfather.
His girlfriend’s family, who also live in Fort McMurray, were also able to get out and make it Calgary.
Edmondson was planning to move away from Fort McMurray at the end of the month but now he’s not so sure.
“Now it doesn’t feel right. It feels like I should go back and help rebuild,” he said. “I’m really proud of our city. I’m proud of the rescue crews. I’m proud of all the volunteers, everybody that helped out, the complete strangers that helped people out.”
He’s amazed at the generosity of the people who have helped out and made donations. A friend in Revelstoke has stepped up to collect household items, and others have given them clothes and other items.
“The generosity makes me just as tearful as the horror as it all. There’s so many tears for so many different reasons,” he said. “There’s times I feel liberated. I’m free. I got rid of all my stuff. I got nothing.”
Do you know other Revelstoke residents who live or work in Fort McMurray? We are interested in sharing their stories. Please have them contact editor Alex Cooper at 250-837-4667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.