Jeff Hughes, a regional coordinator with the AER in the Fort McMurray Field Office, talks about his experience as fires ravaged the city in May, and how the AER is getting back to business in the region.
Can you tell us about the day the fires came through the City of Fort McMurray?
The day started like any other, very normal. I had my truck in for service, I had lunch with my colleagues at the AER Fort McMurray Field Office ... then, the winds shifted, and everything changed. The skies seemed to immediately darken from a clear blue to a dark grey. Then we heard news updates about how the fire situation was evolving: none of it was good. AER leadership told us to go home and prepare to evacuate the city.
Can you describe what you saw and about your experience evacuating from the city?
My family and I saw a lot of things that day: lots of fear and worry, lots of people fearing for their own safety, their loved ones, and their property. There are things we saw that we will probably remember for the rest of our lives. But, the things I didn’t see were panic, chaos, and selfishness. I joke that this was a very “Canadian” evacuation, but it’s true. People were polite, mindful, and respectful of others. No one risked the safety of perfect strangers in order to ensure their own safety. Everyone realized that we were in this together, and to make it through, we had to do it together.
Tell us about your months since evacuating from Fort McMurray? Where have you settled?
The months since the evacuation have been interesting, to say the least. We spent the first night at an amazing camp north of Fort McMurray, which has since burned down. The next morning we were able to make it to Edmonton via Highway 63. Since, we’ve bounced a little between Calgary and Edmonton, where we remain until we return home for good on June 30. Everyone has welcomed us with open arms, including AER staff across the province, and we cannot thank them enough. When your world is turned upside down, any return to normalcy, however small, is a gift.
How close is the Fort McMurray team and what does an event like this do for a team?
When you take a very close team and put them through a crisis like this, I think the end product is some kind of team / family hybrid: maybe a “tamily,” or a “feam?” In all seriousness, this crisis has brought us even closer. During the emergency and since, we kept in contact via cell phones and social media, but also through a great support network that the AER mobilized for us. Knowing your friends and coworkers were safe was just one less thing to worry about when there seemed to be little else to do but worry.
Have you returned to Fort McMurray? Tell us about your experience in going back.
I was able to return with the first wave of people returning to the city. The drive north on Highway #63 was a mixture of emotions, between fear of what I might find and just pure joy to be going back home. When I reached the city and I saw the “Welcome Home” signs, the enormous Canadian flag above one of our overpasses, and the firefighters standing on that overpass waving to us as we re-entered the city… I felt a sense of relief. No matter what happened, no matter what I found at my own home I knew that things would return to normal. Come what may, my family and I, along with the rest of city, would rebuild our home.
We’ve heard about the outpouring of support for Fort McMurray residents. Can you tell us what your experience has been like?
I sum it up best by saying: overwhelming pride. I felt proud to be an “adopted” Albertan, I felt proud to be Canadian. I’m not exaggerating. Everywhere we went, be it Calgary, Edmonton, Athabasca, Grasslands, or any of the other communities we visited, people did everything they could to help us. From offering free meals to ridiculous sales on clothes, to free accommodations and family attractions - Albertans, and Canadians, did what they could to help us. There are no words.
Amid all of the tragedy, have there been any bright spots for you?
I think there have been lots of highs and lots of lows too. First and foremost though, I am thankful that my family is okay and that my home is still standing. But bright spot? One comes to mind. As I was finally leaving Fort McMurray and heading south to Edmonton, I passed through the last intersection within the city limits, and as I drove through, I saw a single RCMP officer standing in the middle of it helping to direct evacuees. The city was engulfed in smoke, and the officer stood all alone amid the smoke, wearing a half-mask to protect himself. As I drove by, I gave him a thumbs-up, a small, token of my appreciation for everything that he and his peers were doing. And then it hit me: I was free to go south and be safe, but he had to stay and face this thing down. And do you know what he did in return? Gave a simple nod - that was it - calm and collected. That’s courage. That’s strength.
Tell us about the role the AER will continue to play as the city opens up, and as industry starts ramping up production?
Like the City of Fort McMurray, we will do our best to return the AER Fort McMurray Field Office to normal operations. It may take some time, but we’ll get there. We will also be working closely with industry to ensure their return to normal operation is done in a safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible manner.
Last question – an open ended one. Is there anything you want to share with readers?
Having people risk their lives just to protect your stuff really puts things into perspective. Things can always be replaced, but people cannot. These folks who continue to fight this fire, who got us out of the city safely, who protected some of us from ourselves, they’re heroes. Heroes. I think we need to do a better job of recognizing that in our everyday lives. It could be small and simple: pay for their coffee at Tim’s, purchase the fundraising calendars at the grocery store, or make the donations during community events. All I know is that when my family and I really needed them, they were there, and I will be eternally grateful for what they did.
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Thank you for writing this article, it really puts everything into perspective, and how people are generally kind and helpful. I wish you all the very best!