Former Rupert residents escape Fort McMurray wildfire

by | May 5, 2016

PRINCE RUPERT — Homes and buildings were ablaze on both sides of the road as Miguel Borges and his nine-year-old son evacuated Fort McMurray in line of slow-moving cars.

Miguel and his family moved to Fort McMurray three years ago after spending 13 years in Prince Rupert where he worked as a teacher. Miguel said he couldn’t refuse taking the technical coordinator position at the school district in the oil town. He was working at a junior high school on Tuesday afternoon when the voluntary evacuation was announced.

“We knew there was a fire south of town but it looked like it was getting really dark outside,” he said.

The Borges family had to wait in a line of cars to exit Fort McMurray as the wild fire spread. CREDIT/MIGUEL BORGES

The Borges family had to wait in a line of cars to exit Fort McMurray as the wild fire spread. CREDIT/MIGUEL BORGES

 

He picked up his three kids, and with his wife Pam, he rushed home to pack up — until the evacuation became mandatory and they were told to get out of town as quickly as possible. Pam took four-year-old Maxi, seven-year-old Carmen and the family dog in her Dodge Caravan, which only had one-quarter tank of gas. Miguel and his oldest son, Xavier, jumped in his Ford Focus.

The streets were gridlocked as everyone funnelled south out of the burning city. It took the family two-and-a-half hours to get out of the city, which normally takes 10 minutes.

“It happened very quickly. The fire was on one side of the river, it was largely contained until the wind shifted and it crossed the river, which was almost unthinkable. It’s a pretty wide river, not as wide as the Skeena, it’s maybe half as wide, and the next thing its racing up to residential neighbourhoods,” he said.

Evacuation

The Borges have a home on Thickwood Boulevard, one of the first neighbourhoods to be evacuated. They were initially going to evacuate north, but by the time they got to the highway they were diverted south and they had to drive through downtown Fort McMurray.

“There was lots of fire. There was fire on both sides of us as we were driving down the highway and pretty close to the car freaking out my kid a little bit,” Miguel said. The time in the car allowed for some serious discussions with his son who saw homes on fire.

“There were lots of discussions on how insurance works, what it means to be a refugee and how lucky we are that everybody is getting out of here alive, and that we live in a great country where everybody is going to help us,” he said.

The family drove south and listened to the radio for updates and instructions. When they hit the turnoff to go to a reception centre it was already full. Miguel said he saw a line of approximately 1,000 cars trying to get into the parking lot so they just kept driving down Highway 63.

Abandoned vehicles along the highway

As they drove away from the fire, the family saw abandoned vehicles left on the side of the road. Pam’s car was getting low on gas. They planned on leaving the van if they needed to and pile into Miguel’s little car.

“There was no gas left in Fort McMurray, which is kind of ironic,” Miguel said.

When the gas light came on, the family also considered pulling over and sleeping on the side of the road. But they came upon Wandering River, a small town 200-kilometres south of Fort McMurray along Highway 63 and saw a gas station.

They stopped at the station and joined the long line of cars, and after an hour-and-a-half wait Pam fuelled up the van. Some of their friends weren’t able to fuel up until early Wednesday morning.

Miguel Borges' wife, Pam, with their children, Xavier, 9, Carmen, 7, and Maxi, 4 at the work camp in Wandering River, Alberta. CREDIT/MIGUEL BORGES

Miguel Borges’ wife, Pam, with their children, Xavier, 9, Carmen, 7, and Maxi, 4 at the work camp in Wandering River, Alberta. CREDIT/MIGUEL BORGES

Work camps became a temporary shelter

While the Borges were in line, a woman came along and asked them if they needed a place to stay and pointed out that there was a work camp on the other side of town that had been closed after the downturn in the oil industry.

The old work camp was opened up for the people fleeing Fort McMurray. Just before midnight, the Borges were set up in a camp room that Miguel described as a mini-hotel room with a private bathroom, television and Internet.

“I think this is the situation up and down the highway. Work camps that were emptied after the downturn are filling up with Fort McMurray refugees.”

Miguel expects to stay in Wandering River for the next couple of days, and may head further south to stay with friends in Edmonton.

The fate of the Borges’ home

While many homes, schools and buildings in the city have been destroyed, Miguel, as a tech expert, is keeping a close watch on his own house. He has security cameras set up in his home and he’s been able to connect back to monitor the situation. “It seems like it’s still standing. It’s very hazy and lots of smoke,” he said.

Many friends from Prince Rupert have reached out to Miguel. He admitted that he wishes he was in the cooler climate in the North Coast right now. He is using social media to keep everyone in touch and he even published a YouTube video of his evacuation.

Wednesday is expected to be the biggest test as the high temperatures and winds feed the wildfire. The Borges are happy to have shelter, food and water. For now, they’ll wait and see when they can return and what is left for them to return to.

This story was originally published for The Northern View in Prince Rupert on May 4, 2016