A Ride Into the Ashes of Fort McMurray
“They’ve got 300 sandwiches? Ok, we’re turning around now.”
Daniel Haas hangs up his cell and slams the brakes of his pickup truck on the highway heading into Fort McMurray, Alberta. He cranks the wheel and bolts back south on Highway 63, toward an evacuation camp in the opposite direction, where oil and gas workers usually live. It’s just been evacuated because of the threat of fire and now all the food is going to go to waste.
Haas’ truck is already packed full of donated food he’ll hand out to fire crews battling the aggressive wildfires chewing through a swath of northern Alberta, and police enforcing the mandatory evacuation of Fort Mac’s 83,000 residents.
The city’s supposed to be off limits for anyone else, with police standing guard at checkpoints, but VICE News secured a seat in a caravan taking in supplies, and got a rare, early look at the devastation.
“Those guys, they need fresh food. They’re sick of the granola bars,” says Haas of the worn and weary crews battling the blaze. “So we’ll just cram it all in,” he says, driving past a group of people camped on the side of the road offering free gas and rations, the only sign of activity in sight.
He parks in front of the camp’s main office and jogs toward the kitchen. The 10-minute warning to get out passed long ago. The few remaining staff help pile buckets of sandwiches and desserts into the truck and backseat.
“Mind if I speed a lot now? Hold on,” Haas says to the VICE News crew along for the adrenaline-pumping ride. “If it’s too dangerous for you, you need to get out.” He pushes the accelerator to 150 kilometers an hour.
It’s the first time Haas, a truck driver from Fort McMurray, has been back to the city since it was evacuated earlier in the week. It’s an unbearable tragedy for the hub of Canada’s oil and gas sector that was already reeling from layoffs and economic hardship due to plummeting crude prices.
He and the rest of his colleagues have been dropping off supplies to evacuation camps and frontline workers in Fort McMurray. Earlier in the day they delivered a massive tanker truck filled with potable water.
“Getting out was my first priority, now we’ve got to help,” says Haas. His girlfriend has found refuge in Edmonton and his four-year-old daughter is staying with family in Newfoundland, where he’s from originally. “Fort Mac has given us so much over the years, and now it needs me. It needs us.”
At this point, he has barely slept and doesn’t remember the last time he ate. Large cans of Red Bull and packs of cigarettes sustain him.
Dozens of wildfires in Alberta, collectively dubbed the “beast,” have grown to cover nearly more than 150,000 hectares this week — about three times the geographic footprint of Canada’s largest city, Toronto — and are now pushing into neighboring Saskatchewan. In addition to boots on the ground, Alberta has 15 helicopters, 14 air tankers and 88 other pieces of equipment trying to control the flames. Saturday evening, officials reported that more than 2,000 vehicles were able to travel safely south through Fort McMurray as part of a massive military-led mobilization that escorted people who had been sent north in the chaos of the initial evacuation.
Haas, a hulking 26-year-old wearing a ball cap and a silver chain necklace, is anxious to see what’s left of the place he’s called home for eight years, and maybe even find his cat. “We couldn’t find that troublemaker in time. But we got our dog.”
He and his girlfriend left out four bowls of food just in case. “If they’re still full, well, then we’ll know.”
Thick grey clouds of smoke begin to appear about 30 kilometers south of the city. “Fuck, it’s even worse than I remember,” he says.
He pulls up to the police checkpoint, just a few miles away from the city. “Okay, put the camera down. Now.”
Only essential people are allowed in beyond this point. No media, no residents. Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been going door-to-door ordering those left behind to leave, and on Saturday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley urged any stragglers left in the city to get out immediately.
“Please listen carefully to this,” she said at a press conference. “If you aren’t a police officer, a firefighter or otherwise have a first-responder role in the emergency, you should not be in Fort McMurray.”
‘It’s getting real now. We’re driving into hell.’
Haas is waved through after explaining he’s there to deliver supplies. “It’s getting real now,” says Haas. “We’re driving into hell.”
His gas mask and helmet shift along on the dashboard. It’s hard to keep count of the fresh fires burning along the way into town.
Around the city limits, the Super 8 motel has been reduced to rubble, along with at least 1,600 other structures. In the city, frames of singed trailer homes stand precariously among debris that’s still smoking. Sidewalks and walkways lead to nothing.
Most buildings on the main street downtown remain untouched. But everything is quiet. The air is thick and there’s a ghostly orange light coming from the sun through the plumes of smoke. As you move through town, smells of burning gas and rubber linger.
“The beauty’s gone from Fort Mac right now, that’s for sure,” Haas says, absorbing this new reality. He lights a cigarette and slows down to offer a federal police officer some dinner.
Police cars patrol the city and keep watch over efforts to fight fires and bulldoze parts of the damaged forest. Haas rolls down his window to talk to another officer, who provides an update on the latest developments.
“We couldn’t see the fires for the last couple of days, but now you can see them again. Fuck,” the officer said. “Once the wind shifts, it changes the fire altogether. It’s changing all the time.”
Haas parks on top of a hill where crews operating Caterpillar equipment are rummaging through fallen trees. A few workers gather around the back of the truck and breathe a sigh of relief when they see the sustenance that has arrived. They say they haven’t eaten much in the last two days as they fill boxes with ham sandwiches, muffins, and cases of water. They don’t know when their next shift will end.
After a few more deliveries, Haas wants to check in on his girlfriend’s father’s house to see if it’s still intact. Parts of the siding and ornamental features have melted, but it’s still standing. Across the street, a whole block of townhouses has burned to the ground.The fences and structures that once provided privacy for these homes have disintegrated to expose torched patio furniture, barbecues, and undefinable debris. Bits of glass crunch while walking along what might have been a doorstep or welcome mat. It’s a graveyard of empty foundation pits.
“I have no words,” Haas remarks quietly, staring up the hill to survey the devastation.
He doesn’t say much more as he drives toward the community of Gregoire, and pulls into his driveway. “Psspsspss. Here, puss!” Haas darts toward his backyard and up the wooden stairs to the patio.
“Okay, all the food is gone. Okay,” he says breathlessly, looking down at the bowls. He holds out for a few more minutes and gets back into this car. “Maybe the SPCA got to him.”
Back downtown on the way to the southern exit, the air is thicker than before.”I don’t want to get caught in the city again because of fire,” he said. “So we have to hurry. I don’t want to be here for long.”
Still driving, he grabs the gas mask and puts it on with one hand. The head strap folds down the top of his right ear.
“You laugh, but the mask will keep me alive,” he says, barely audible as his mouth is covered.
The ride has clearly shaken Haas, and forced him to reflect. He turns to his companions and starts talking about one of his favorite things to do around town: taking his boat out on the Gregoire River with his daughter. It’s the first thing he says he’ll do once he returns home. When that will be is a question that hangs in the air.
The view ahead begins to clear and the checkpoint appears. “I really don’t know how long this is going to last,” he says. “What we need is rain. Or something.”
Cover: Dan Olsen/VICE News