“It’s the closest thing to hell that I’ve ever seen,” recalled Fort McMurray resident Matthew Salem, who escaped the wildfire raging through northern Alberta.
On May 3, the day the Fort McMurray evacuations began, Salem, son of Rockwood resident Stephenie Salem, and his girlfriend Caitlin Hare had been back in town for just one night.
The pair attended the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, returning to Fort McMurray on May 2.
“When we had drove in from Calgary we saw the fire; it looked like the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings if you can imagine this thing,” Salem, 30, told the Advertiser.
“It was huge, but the next morning when we had woken up it looked like everything was okay.”
On May 3, Salem and Hare went about their normal day because they didn’t see, hear or smell anything out of the ordinary. Luckily, one of their errands was to fill up their car’s gas tank. It was at about 2pm when Salem noticed something wasn’t right.
“I looked outside and the light coming from the sun was bright orange … unlike anything you’d ever seen before,” he said. “So I went out on our balcony … and all you can see … is smoke and just orange.”
He took a video and posted it to Facebook – and that’s when Stephenie realized just what her son was going through.
“Of course we knew about the fires, but everybody was still in their home. In fact it had only gotten so far and no one had been evacuated yet,” Stephenie told the Advertiser.
“And then my son posted [the] video … and it made us realize, oh my God, how close it was and the smoke … it was so frightening.”
At that point Salem’s downtown apartment wasn’t yet in the evacuation zone, but he and Hare packed a bag incase they had to make a hasty exit.
Their friends came to the apartment and the foursome combed Twitter and Facebook and listened to the radio, trying to figure out what was going on.
“For a while there it was just all four of us sitting in my apartment, all of us on our phones, while we had a radio playing, keeping us updated,” Salem said.
“Then the radio stations were evacuated themselves so then it was nothing for a while; we had nothing but the emergency broadcasts that kept playing over and over and over again, but we kept listening to it because we were hoping, you know, that someone would update it and eventually they did.”
By 3pm the evacuation call came.
“We finally got the notification from the municipality that there was a mandatory evacuation of the downtown area and we had to get out,” Salem said.
The couple grabbed their two cats, their bag and left.
“We were checking our phones, checking Twitter and they said nobody can leave south of town because the fire has passed the highway so everyone has to head north,” he recalled.
“So we head down to the car to put everything in and it was just raining ash and sticks and twigs and flaming leaves from the sky. Just like the most unbelievable thing.”
The foursome fled Fort McMurray in two cars.
“So we got into our car and we started heading north and the traffic was pretty bad,” he recalled.
People were scrambling.
“It was just like a disaster movie,” he said. “It was just unbelievable. You saw people just driving on the grass, driving on the shoulder, driving on the wrong side of the road. Anything they could do to just get out of town.”
Salem said he saw a 200-foot wall of flames as they were leaving the city.
“The flames were to the left of us and we were driving down the highway and it got to the point where you could hear it and that was when it was kind of scary. We were like ‘okay, we have to keep going, we have to keep going,’” he recalled.
“It sounded like tearing, you could hear trees literally exploding from the heat. Because of the boreal forest there there’s specific trees that actually explode when heated up to let their seeds out and so yeah you could literally hear the trees bursting in the background.”
In an unfortunate circumstance, the air conditioner in Salem’s car was broken.
“We’re feeling this heat and the cats are just like panting and we’re just melting in the car trying to get away,” he said. “We’re just lucky we got out and that nobody was hurt.”
It took the foursome two and a half hours to get to a camp that could help them – a drive that would normally take 45 minutes.
And yet it never crossed Salem’s mind that they wouldn’t escape.
“That’s the one thing … Fort McMurray is a very tight knit, very supportive community and you know, as much as there were those few jerks that were trying to go around people and go on the grass and go on the shoulder … everyone that I looked at looked back at me and you know, we both kind of had this understanding of like, you know, ‘I’ve got your back’ kind of thing,” he said.
One of the most inspiring things he saw during the evacuation was a woman galloping down the highway on a horse while leading two other horses, one on each side.
“I swear this woman looked like Xena – like I’m pretty sure she was wearing some sort of leather armour or something, but I can’t be too sure. But it was unbelievable,” he said.
Salem said he also saw people abandoning their cars along the road and just walking north on the highway.
“We still had a half an hour drive until anything, because Fort McMurray is so secluded from everything else,” he said.
The closest camp was full before the four friends even made it there, so they bypassed the next camp too and went straight to a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) camp in Fort McKay.
A father of one of Salem’s friends works at the oil sands site and told them he’d help them figure out where to go.
“You know a lot of people around the world tear oil sands companies apart for what they do, but I can tell you without them we wouldn’t be here right now because as soon as we got to the CNRL site north of town they put us on the first flight out to Calgary and we got on the plane with our two cats in a cardboard box,” he said.
“It’s just unbelievable and we flew out to Calgary and … at 1:15 in the morning our friend Ashley’s mom came to pick us up from the airport and now we’re here (at her house).”
The flight is what gave Stephenie peace of mind.
“We were pretty frightened until I knew that he was actually on that plane and on his way to Calgary,” she said.
“I was like sick, beside myself, I’m telling you. I didn’t go to bed or I didn’t go to sleep until I knew he was safe and now that I know he’s coming home, I’m so excited.”
As of May 9 Salem and Hare’s apartment was still standing in Fort McMurray and his landlord had been in touch to talk about moving back in.
However, it’s still unclear when residents will be allowed back in the town, as the Fort McMurray wildfire was approximately 204,000 hectares on Monday and is anticipated to grow in size.
“It sucks to not know when you can go back to your home – or you know, what exactly it is that you’re going back to,” Salem said.
But he will be going back.
“I’m very well known within the community there,” he said. “I have a show that I do there, like a podcast as well as I’m a president of a few non-profit organizations there.
“And I feel like it’s up to people like me and people like the friends that I know to go back and be the cheerleaders for Fort McMurray, to let everyone know that it’s safe to come back and … that everything is going to be alright …
“That town has given me so much and now it’s my opportunity to give back.”
Salem and Hare moved to Fort McMurray from Brampton about five years ago, when Salem took a full-time job with Telus.
He’ll still have that job when he returns and he said the company will be better than ever.
“Once we get back, another kind of silver lining to this is we’re going to be rebuilding Fort McMurray back up, better than it ever has been. We’re going to be putting fibre (optic cable) everywhere,” he said.
“It’s going to be some of the fastest internet speeds anyone’s ever seen.”
Salem and Hare were scheduled to arrive in Rockwood on May 11 to stay with Stephenie until they can return to their home in Fort McMurray.
Since the evacuation, Salem said the outpouring of support he has received is unbelievable.
“You know I’ve seen so many articles … Canada helped us and we want to give back and help Canada back out,” he said.
“I was one of those people who always defended the Syrian refugees and stuff coming here saying, ‘you know, one day you’re going to be a refugee and you know, you’re going to find out what it’s going to be like’ and people are like, ‘yeah we’ll see about that’…
“Well we’re seeing about that now and they’re really, really stepping up and helping everyone out, so I’m so glad to see all of this happening.”
Those who want to make a donation to help the evacuees can do so through the Canadian Red Cross at redcross.ca or 1-800-418-1111.
The provincial government in Alberta, as well as the federal government, will match all individual Fort McMurray donations to the Canadian Red Cross.