Fort McMurray evacuees find refuge in Central Alberta

The Metacat family, seven in total, are thankful they are together and alive living in a campground of donated RV’s in Central Alberta along with 12 other families.   ECA Review/Submitted

A campground hosting 12 evacuee families in Central Alberta near Red Deer.   ECA Review/Submitted


A campground in Central Alberta is a temporary home to 12 families from Fort McMurray who fled the wildfire that forced the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history May 3.

Chris, who doesn’t want his last name used, runs the campground and said he has helped place seven families in rentals north east of Red Deer so far. And, as one family leaves the campground, another arrives.

“I expect it to be like this for four or fives months,” he said.

Some of the larger families live in two RV’s parked side by side. All the RV’s were donated.

“People just pulled up with their RV’s and left them here for the evacuees,” said Chris, visibly touched by Central Albertan’s generosity.

A young boy runs across the grass between the RV’s carrying an armful of toilet paper.  Other children play on outdoor playground equipment while still others dart around the campsite like it was a neighbourhood street.  The children seem elated – as if staying at the campground is just one big adventure – not yet realizing their lives have been changed forever.

There is a sense of camaraderie between the families staying at the campground. Everyone is polite – and grateful for the outpouring of generosity from strangers.

For now, the Metacat family is calling the campsite home. Robert and Lisa, along with their five children, Samuel, 15, Katherine, 12, George, 6, Sara, 10, and Rosalie, 4, fled Fort McMurray May 3.

The day started out like any other.

“It happened so fast,” said Lisa. “It was sunny, the brightest day ever and then (the sky) was covered with cloud and smoke. You couldn’t see anything. It was like evening. It went fast. Everything just went so fast.”

Robert, who works for Syncrude, was at home helping his wife with laundry when they were told they had to evacuate Fort McMurray.  Robert got a text message from his mom at 1:33 p.m. about the evacuation. They then listened to the local radio that was telling residents to evacuate.

Their youngest child, Rosalie, was home with them. The other four were in school – at two separate schools – and they had to pick up their children fast.

They left their downtown apartment in such a hurry they didn’t close the windows.

“There was no time to close the windows,” said Robert. “We were more worried about getting our kids and their electronics and whatever clothes we could see. We grabbed it and left.”

They went to the Composite High School at 2:11 p.m. to pick up Samuel and then at 2:30 to Dr. K.A. Clark School to get Katherine, Sara and George.

The reality of the evacuation and the panicked city population started to take its toll on the Metacats.

“When we went back two and half blocks to the Macs store only to find there was no gas I was in panic mode,” said Robert. “I took over driving and took every back alley, cut across parking lots. I got us to the Safeway and got gas.

“I fuelled up and I looked back and the guy behind me, the pump quit on him, it stopped pumping,” said Robert. “We were lucky we got our tank of fuel.

“As I ran through Safeway getting water, fruit and what I could, I kept saying over and over ‘thank you my Creator, guide me the rest of the way to safety. I love my family – please help us in our darkest moment in our lives.’”

The family started driving south towards Edmonton but were stopped by police.

“You have to go north, go north” shouts an officer standing alone in the middle of a smoke filled highway as he directed traffic, a home video made by the family shows.

“We wanted to come south but they (police) wouldn’t let us,” said Robert.

Videos the family shot of their escape from the city depict fiery flames along the highway devouring trees in its path, the incessant sound of sirens wailing across the city and distant screams.

After getting out of the city the family drove to Lac La Biche and spent a few hours there. They then went to the Syncrude baseline campsite. They were given two camp rooms with an adjoining bathroom.

“It was better than sleeping in a tent or in our SUV, all seven of us,” said Robert.

The family arrived in Central Alberta Friday after being unable to find a rental in Calgary or Edmonton.
Lisa wants her children’s lives to continue as normal as possible and plans to enrol them in school in Red Deer. Robert will return to work for Syncrude in Fort McMurray in the coming days after his family is settled.
Although the family has called Fort McMurray home since 2009, they are uncertain whether or not they will return.

“I’m not too sure,” said Lisa. “I haven’t thought of that.”

For now they are together, alive, and that’s enough.

About the author




* indicates required