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.
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 it does is race up to residential neighbourhoods,” he said.
The Borges have a home on Thickwood Boulevard, one of the first neighbourhoods to be evacuated.
“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.
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 Pam’s gas light went on they came upon Wandering River, a small town 200-kilometres south of Fort McMurray along Highway 63 and saw a working 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. 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 work camp opened 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 expected to stay in Wandering River for a few days, and may head further south to stay with friends in Edmonton.
The Borges wait for when they can return and what is left for them to return to.
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