Living

I Was Forced To Evacuate My Home During The Alberta Wildfires. I Don’t Know When I’ll Get To Go Back

It was smoky and dark. Everyone on my street was packing their cars. It was like an apocalyptic scene in a movie.

Smoke from an out-of-control fire near Lodgepole, Alta. An out-of-control wildfire has caused thousands of people to flee their homes in Drayton Valley, Alta., and the surrounding rural area.

Smoke from an out-of-control fire near Lodgepole, Alta. An out-of-control wildfire has caused thousands of people to flee their homes in Drayton Valley, Alta., and the surrounding rural area. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO – Alberta Wildfire)

I live in the town of Drayton Valley, Alta., with my husband, our 12-year-old daughter and three dogs. As a family, we’ve lived here for about a year and a half. You get used to forest fires and smoky skies. You never think you’ll have to evacuate.

This spring has been unusually hot, and fire season started early. By the start of the month, there were fires outside of town. I didn’t think we’d have to leave. The fires were on the other side of the North Saskatchewan river.

On May 3, at 11 p.m., as I was getting into bed, my phone started going off. We got an alert from the province that we might need to evacuate in 30 minutes. The message was confusing: Did we have to leave? I had to read through the fine print to find out we were affected. I saw my neighbours back their truck up to their front door.

Soon after the first alert, we got a second: We had to move now.

A friend called in a panic. She didn’t know where she and her two-year-old daughter should go. She didn’t have much gas. I told her to come over and follow us. If she ran out of gas, they could hop in with me.

We woke our daughter up and told her to pack a bag. She freaked out. She’s old enough to understand. This panic falls on you. What you’re doing is leaving all of your stuff behind in an unknown situation. I grabbed our memory boxes and a folder of important documents. We’ve done a lot of backpacking and I’ve learned how to live on a little for a long time. I took some comfort in knowing that I’m good at being a minimalist. I threw a couple of shirts, pants, socks for all of us in bags, and some coolers of food—that’s it. I forgot some photo albums that I hope to get back.

The police knocked on the door and told us we had to go. Outside, ash was falling from the sky. It was smoky and dark. Everyone on my street was packing their cars. It was like an apocalyptic scene in a movie. My daughter was hyperventilating, so I helped her into my car. My husband got into his truck; we couldn’t fit all the dogs into one vehicle, so my husband went with the animals.

A family of three: from left, a man with brown hair, a beard and black short-sleeved button-down, a young girl wearing a black T-shirt and a woman with blonde hair and a grey cardigan, all standing in a wooded area

Erin Kay with her husband and daughter. (Courtesy of Erin Kay)

We moved out of town slowly in a huge line-up of cars. We’d decided to head to my parents’ place—it’s in Millet, Alta., about 100 kilometres, usually an hour and 15 minutes to drive.

It took us four hours to get there because we had to skirt around the fire. My husband led us out, and my friend and I followed in our vehicles. It was such a long night. We could see the glow in the distance. Later, someone showed me photos of the same road the next day, you could see the flames.

We’ve been at my parents’ place for a week. My friend and her child are here with us. We’re blessed to be able to be here. We went to the Expo Center in Edmonton to register as evacuees. Some of the 1,400 residents of Drayton Valley are sheltering there. There are cots set up and animals everywhere, and people who have nowhere to go.

We’re hearing that we’ll be out at least until the end of next week. The temperature is heating up again. Our house, for now, is okay—but it could absolutely still be lost in the fire.

I saw a picture of where the fire came up to the edge of town. The wind changed direction at the last minute and sent the fire away. It’s a fragile situation. We can’t control the wind. Neither can the firefighters.

I started dating my husband about three years ago. He lived in Drayton Valley and I was living in Edmonton. The first time I visited him I was like, I’m never going to move here. But things changed during the pandemic. I moved here about a year and half ago, and we got married. This town became a refuge for me. It’s close to the mountains. It’s a place where your kids can go longboarding until late and you don’t have to worry. I love living here. I would love to be able to go back.

I work part-time for the town in the community services department, helping the unsheltered population. This situation will be hardest on those folks who are already in a tough spot. My heart wants me to be out there helping. But I was on short-term stress leave when we evacuated. I had a pregnancy loss in January 2023—we were far along in the pregnancy. I needed surgery. I am still on a healing journey from that. I wish I was at my full capacity so I could go back to work. There will be many people in need.

I can’t imagine what my daughter’s generation has experienced with COVID-19 and now, fire. I remind myself that God didn’t make mistakes. I think he built kids for times such as these. They’re moving through these uncertain times, carrying on, and finding a way to integrate it and be a kid and find joy.

I’m trying to trust in my faith and find beautiful moments. I was lying in bed with my daughter and husband last night and we were just talking. It was fun. I don’t know if we’d be doing this if we were at home. It was one of those moments where I thought, This is special.

We’re fragile beings and life is precious. There are always what ifs. What if this is the entire summer? When we do get home, we’ll still have our bags ready to go. Nothing is certain, but we want to be safe.

Want to help? The federal government and Alberta government are currently matching donations made to the Canadian Red Cross’s wildfire relief fund.

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