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Fleeing the fire

Oshawa native drops it all to escape Fort McMurray blaze

An RCMP officer surveys the damage left by a massive forest fire that forced the evacuation of the Alberta city of Fort McMurray. Among the evacuees was Oshawa native Neely McCoy and her family. McCoy says that while she believes her apartment is still safe, her daughter's home has been destroyed.

An RCMP officer surveys the damage left by a massive forest fire that forced the evacuation of the Alberta city of Fort McMurray. Among the evacuees was Oshawa native Neely McCoy and her family. McCoy says that while she believes her apartment is still safe, her daughter’s home has been destroyed. (Photo courtesy of the RCMP)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

For Neely McCoy, the destruction was surreal, like something out of a movie.

When a northern Alberta wildfire raged out of control and overtook the oilsands city of Fort McMurray, the Oshawa native and her family were forced to drop everything and flee their homes.

“We didn’t even grab clothes or anything like that, we just grabbed the kids and the animals and put them in vehicles,” McCoy tells The Oshawa Express.

On May 3, her family fled to Anzac, a town approximately 30 minutes south, to escape the flames. This came after a mandatory evacuation of their entire city of more than 61,000 was issued earlier in the week, the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history.

In total, more than 88,000 people have been displaced by the fire.

“It happened so fast,” McCoy says. “I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

The flames, fuelled by dry conditions and fierce winds, quickly spread over the city, destroying entire neighbourhoods. Currently, the cause of the massive wildfire is unknown, but due to the lack of storm conditions and lightning in recent weeks, it’s believed to be human-caused.

McCoy, who was born in Oshawa and moved to Alberta four years ago, described the destruction and the proximity of the flames as herself, her husband, three children, son-in-law and three grandchildren drove from the city with three dogs, a cat and bearded dragon in tow.

“We actually got burn marks on our car from the fire hitting us,” she says. “We were driving by the trailer parks, the homes that people live in, and they were blowing up and pieces flying at us and our vehicle….the propane tanks blowing up, the trailer homes lifting off the ground as they were blowing up, and it was like being in a movie.”

Terror and panic ensued when McCoy and her husband became separated from her daughter driving in a separate car as the barrier closed behind them.

“I tried for hours and hours to call her and I couldn’t get a hold of her,” McCoy recalls. “It was like total panic because I didn’t know where she was.”

Thankfully, everyone was safe, but the same could not be said for their homes. While McCoy believes the apartment she calls home was still safe for the time being, the home where her daughter lived with her husband and three kids was destroyed.

According to officials, the fire has reached 200,000 hectares in size, and is expected to grow as the blaze continues to burn out of control. It’s predicted the blaze could take months to extinguish. For context, the total size of the fire could grow to approximately 20 times the size of the City of Oshawa.

Starting on May 6, Ontario sent 100 firefighters to to help the already 1,100 firefighters currently battling the blaze.

And while the flames burned, the generosity of human nature seemed to burn brighter as those in communities around Fort McMurray sprang into action.

“They have food here for us, water, all that kind of stuff so everyone is coming together to help,” McCoy says.

The plight of those affected has captured the national attention of Canadians who have donated more than $30 million to a Red Cross relief fund, which will be matched by both the federal and Alberta provincial governments.

And while the funds pour in to assist those in need, the province of Alberta has already assigned $100 million in immeidate aid to those displaced, McCoy has a much humbler request.

“Just keeping us in your thoughts, you know, is all I ask,” she says. “That’s all I want, just keep us in your thoughts.”