WATCH: Mass exodus as Fort McMurray fire evacuees trapped in Northern Alberta oil camps for days finally get out. Tess van Straaten reports.
It’s been an exhausting few days for Victoria’s Derek Thompson and Natasha Thesen.
“We’re still in shock,” says an emotional Thesen after arriving at the Victoria International Airport Friday afternoon.
The couple and their little dog, Brady, have been trapped in Northern Alberta oil sands camps since Tuesday after narrowly escaping the horrific Fort McMurray wildfire.
“We were definitely worried when we saw the flames and were stuck in the city,” Thompson says. “It was scary for sure. We tried to head south first but it was too late and the highway had been overtaken by fire and we had to turn around.”
The catastrophic fire — which has now grown to more than 100,000 hectares in size — meant the couple and 25,000 other evacuees had to flee north of the city, finding refuge in work camps.
“We were going camp to camp, place to place, trying to drive down the highway only to get turned around by the RCMP saying the fire’s coming towards us and you just didn’t know what the next move was,” Thompson says.
Duncan’s Clint Hiles is a pipeliner who’s worked in Fort Mac for three years. He says his camp took in as many people as it could.
“There was a lot of families there, lots of people without rooms that were just staying there and had nowhere to go cause they couldn’t get out fast enough ,” Hiles says. “That fire crossed the highway in an insane amount of time. It’s wild how fast it spread — I’ve never seen anything spread that fast.”
Hiles was supposed to be evacuated two days ago, making for a nerve-racking wait for his loved ones.
“It was stressful sitting there wondering if he was going to come home or not or making the flight back,” says girlfriend Brittany Galenzoski, hugging Hiles at the airport.
But early Friday morning, Hiles and thousands of other evacuees finally started being air-lifted out.
“The plane was right full,” Hiles says. “We didn’t even have to go through security because they had to get us out — the bus went right on the tarmac.”
Police-led convoy leads vehicles through fire-ravaged Fort McMurray
Under the lead of a military helicopter and RCMP, hundreds of other evacuees were led out of the work camps by car on Friday.
They formed a convoy of 50 vehicles at a time, which slowly made its way through through the fire-ravaged city and to safety.
Back in Victoria, it’s an emotional home-coming.
“I’m extremely relieved,” says Natasha Thesen.
Hugging Brady, she’s just thankful they all made it out.
“A lot of people were at work so they couldn’t get home to get their pets so a lot of animals were trapped in their homes,” Thesen says.
The other sober reality — it will likely be weeks before any evacuees can go back to Fort Mac.