Gay Ryan admitted she didn’t initially believe it when her grandson, Kai, texted from Fort McMurray, Alta. to say his family was being evacuated from their home.
“Kai texted me,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Nana, have you heard the fires are really bad here and we have to evacuate?’”
Ryan had phoned her daughter, Karla Bodnar, the day before after hearing on the news about nearby fires, but was reassured there was nothing to worry about.
“I phoned up there and I said, ‘Kai, are you pulling my leg?’ He teases his Nana all the time,” she explained.
“He said, ‘No listen,’ and the radio said ‘mandatory evacuation.’
“I was on pins and needles until they got out of there,” she added.
While in contact with her daughter, Ryan also was trying to reach her husband, Paul, who was in Kenora at the time, to let him know that everyone was safe.
Bodnar said it was a “clear sunny day” on the morning of May 3.
She left for work as a registered massage therapist while her sons, Kai, 15, and 12-year-old Kiril, went to school.
Her husband, Karl, was scheduled to work the night shift as a heavy-duty mechanic for Shell Canada.
“At 1:45 p.m., I walked out into our reception area at work and it was dark outside,” Bodnar recalled.
“Some of the patients in the office were talking about a couple of fires in the city, one not far from my office and one not far from my home,” she added.
After hearing on the radio that both of those areas in Fort McMurray were being evacuated, Bodnar left her workplace and headed home—a drive that usually takes 15 minutes.
“As I started driving, I quickly realized that I should pick up my kids from school,” Bodnar noted, adding that traffic was crazy and the sky was black.
“I arrived at my sons’ school an hour-and-a-half later,” she continued. “By then they were evacuating the schools.”
When the trio arrived home, Karl Bodnar already had begun packing.
“I was in denial—I really didn’t believe we would have to evacuate,” Karla Bodnar admitted.
“We could see the smoke in the sky but it looked quite a ways away.”
Meanwhile, Eric Sedgwick only could wonder what was happening at his home in the Timberlea neighbourhood of Fort McMurray—located a short drive away from the Bodnars.
He was about to return to Fort McMurray last Tuesday after spending a few days in Vancouver with his wife, Erica.
“A friend that lives in the basement, he called and said he was being evacuated and the flames were right by our house,” Sedgwick recalled.
“I thought he was kidding at first but he asked, ‘What do you want taken,’ because he was evacuating and it was really close.
“So we told him to take our dog.
“And he asked if he could take my truck because it was full of fuel at the time and his car wasn’t,” Sedgwick added.
Sedgwick’s friend quickly collected their dog, along with his wife’s laptop and extra hard drive (which contained important document such as wedding photos), as well as Sedgwick’s rifles and guitar.
The friend then headed south of Fort McMurray before getting stuck in the congested traffic.
“We landed in Edmonton and they obviously wouldn’t let us fly to Fort McMurray,” Sedgwick noted.
“Air Canada . . . they really took care of us,” he added. “They got us on a flight to Medicine Hat, which is where my wife’s family is at, and didn’t charge anything extra.”
As the Sedgwicks co-ordinated with their friend to collect some of their belongings, they feared the worst as they thought about their home back in Fort McMurray.
“We literally had nothing but a couple of carry-on bags,” he stressed.
“I mentioned to my wife as we were getting on the flight to Medicine Hat, I said, ‘Look at these bags, this all we have right now.’”
Back here in Fort Frances, Dave and Margaret Sedgwick knew their son was safe from the fires.
“[But] we had a really anxious week not knowing whether he had a home,” Margaret admitted.
“We were pretty anxious for the entire week.
“We became news junkies watching the news and watching everything posted online,” she added.
“I’m not sure that was for the best.”
As for Lee Mosley, he was scheduled to wrap up his two-week run as a heavy mechanic operator north of Fort McMurray last Tuesday and return home to Fort Frances for a week off.
“We left at four in the morning on [May 3] and we could see the huge plume of smoke,” Mosley recalled.
“The ride was moderately rough, even from the distance we were at, whether it was from the heat of the fire or just the wind, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure.”
For now, all the residents of Fort McMurray can do is wait and hope for a quick return to normalcy.
Bodnar is now in Edmonton with her family, and expects her husband will fly to and from work once production resumes.
Sedgwick and his wife still are staying with her family. He is trying to keep busy, and not think about his home, by helping his brother-in-law on the farm.
Since returning to Fort Frances, Mosley heard about opportunities to volunteer in Fort McMurray and looked into heading back.
“I’ve tried some volunteer sites for labouring or whatever there is to do, and they have been so overwhelmed with volunteers,” he noted.
“Everybody I have gotten a hold of, they’ve said, ‘We appreciate the offer but there is no room,’” he added.
“To me, it’s nothing short of amazing that there is that many people, in a matter of not even a week, that they are so overwhelmed with volunteers.”
Sedgwick said he experienced the kindness of a stranger while trying to return home.
“I can’t even express enough of the support we’ve gotten from friends, family, and strangers,” he remarked.
“There was a lady in the Calgary airport that bought us dinner because she overheard us talking . . . my wife and I both had tears in our eyes because we thought we lost everything.
“A complete stranger bought us dinner and said it was the least she could do,” Sedgwick added.
“It’s overwhelming but the support sure helps out.”
Bodnar, meanwhile, has kept in contact with friends who have lost their homes.
“So far, we know of five of our friends that lost their homes,” she noted.
“We have promised them all we will be there to help them get through this. And we will,” she vowed.
“Fort McMurray is a small city with a huge community spirit just like Fort Frances,” Bodnar added.
“The city will rebuild and flourish again. I guarantee that.”