Jenn and Derek Brush play on the floor of Jenn’s family’s Wyoming home with their son Reid.
There is laughter and a few tired half cries from the 10-month old, but everyone is safe and happy. And that is saying a lot considering what the family has been through.
Jenn and Derek grew up in the Wyoming and Petrolia area. Three years ago, while they were still engaged, Derek took a job in Fort McMurray with Shell Canada. Derek loved his work and his company and Jenn found a human resources job close by. They bought a home and started a family, enjoying all that the booming community, built in the middle of the woods, had to offer.
But, after much consideration, the couple decided to move to Edmonton. Derek would be able to fly into work and little Reid would have lots of opportunities in the city as he grew.
On May 3, as the radio warned of a wildfire on the outskirts of town, the Brushes met with a real estate agent to put their home on the market.
As the real estate agent pounded the sign on their front lawn, the couple noticed smoke in the woods behind their home. The fire was getting too close for comfort. They weren’t being ordered to evacuate, but they knew it wouldn’t be long before they would have to go.
The couple started packing some of the essentials; passports, identification, insurance and the like. Before long, the sky was filled with smoke and was an eerie orange. A neighbour stood on a roof yelling down a “play-by-play” of how close the fire was getting so people knew how much time they had.
The packing became more frantic. With Reid talking to his grandma in Ontario on the tablet, Jenn and Derek grabbed what they could find, including the obvious, like photo books Jenn created for Reid and the unusual – a half a bag of candy which they thought they might need for the journey and two tickets to a nitro event, June 10th.
Then the call came to evacuate. With the entire community trying to leave and only one main road out of their subdivision, it seemed to take forever.
The couple was headed for the Shell camp, usually an hour away. Evacuation day, it took eight long, smoke-filled hours on the only road up – Highway 63.
“People were going on both sides of road just to get out of the path of the fire,” says Derek.
After a night at the Shell camp, with Reid unable to keep food down because of the heavy smoke, Derek and Jenn decided to head south to Edmonton where one of Derek’s co-workers offered a trailer for them to use.
Shell fueled up their truck which was filled with their belongings, including the family dog, and they began their way south.
It was another long, worrying commute. They drove past Beacon Hill, one of the neighbourhoods with the greatest devastation in a community where 2,400 homes were destroyed by fire.
“On the hill (that leads to Highway 63) there were little cars and a Purolator van just sitting there. They were stuck in the ditch. They had taken the hill to try to get out.”
The sights of abandoned cars, burned out buildings coupled with the constant news reports on the radio; all were stressful.
“There was so much smoke everywhere, you worry… you think ‘I gotta get the heck through town before the police close things down,’” says Derek.
They made their way through and found lots of friendly people along the way including a welder who was directing Fort McMurray residents to his home for a free barbecue.
When they finally made it to Edmonton, the couple and Reid recovered in the trailer for four days before deciding to head to Wyoming to wait out the evacuation at Jenn’s parent’s home.
They’ve settled into a bit of a routine but Fort McMurray is constantly on their mind.
Jenn checks for updates with the municipality several times a day and friends, still in Alberta, share stories and photos on Facebook.
They think about what they will have to do when they return.
Their house, they think, will sell but they’ll have to spend days, maybe weeks cleaning up the smoke damage replacing everything from refrigerators to attic insulation which are likely to smell like smoke.
And the couple wonders what Fort McMurray will look like. They loved spending time in the woods behind their home. It’s all charred now and Jenn wonders how many animals were able to escape the flames.
For now, the plan is to return, leaving little Reid behind with grandma and grandpa, so they can repair the damage to their home to prepare for their next big move.
One thing Derek and Jenn Brush have learned from fleeing The Beast of Fort Mac, no matter how difficult the situation, they can handle it together.
“As long as people are safe, that’s all that matters,” says Jenn.