"A new normal" – that's what Mavis Ure, P.Eng., says she and other Fort McMurray residents are striving to establish. She gave birth to twins the morning that the city was evacuated. Meanwhile, Rachel Drapeau, P.Eng., six months pregnant, found herself walking across the city as her Beacon Hill neighbourhood burned. Both have returned to the community to raise their families, continue their careers, and support the city as it rebuilds
Just four hours after giving birth to twins via a scheduled C-section, Mavis Ure and her baby boys were loaded onto a city bus, joining the mass evacuation of Northern Lights Regional Hospital. It was around 4 p.m. on May 3.
She and her husband, Curtis Ure, P.Eng., barely had time to celebrate the arrival of Waylon and Garrett before a nurse asked Mavis if she could get out of bed and walk. "I still couldn't feel my legs 100 per cent," she recalls.
The couple had arrived at the hospital that morning, thinking the nearby wildfires were under control. They never imagined they'd soon be on a bus, taking an arduous eight-hour ride north of the city to seek shelter at Suncor's Firebag camp. "We left the hospital in a haze of smoke. It was dark out and there was ash falling," says Mavis.
Thankfully, Mavis's mom was with them to help. But Mom and the new twins were separated from Savannah, the Ures' two year-old daughter. She was with Mavis's dad, who was stuck in traffic gridlock a few hours behind them on Highway 63.
Finally arriving at Firebag at 1 a.m., Mavis, her mother, and the newborns were put on the first medical evacuation flight to Edmonton, where they were transferred to the maternity ward at Grey Nuns Hospital. "I remember being so relieved to be in a bed again and I looked at the clock — it was 8:30 a.m.," says Mavis.
Meanwhile, Curtis had reunited with Savannah and his father-in-law in the early morning hours. He and Savannah were fortunate to quickly catch a flight out and join the rest of the family in Edmonton.
Mavis and Curtis are grateful for the amazing support they received from Suncor — where they both work — and the hospital staff at Northern Lights and Grey Nuns. "I will always remember the sense of community as everyone pulled together to get evacuees out safely," says Curtis.
A Wall of Smoke and a Warm Welcome
Around the same time Mavis and twins were getting ready to evacuate the hospital, Rachel Drapeau was trying to meet up with her husband, Patrick. They both work north of Fort McMurray — she at Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant and Patrick at Canadian Natural Resources' Horizon site — and had caught rides back into the city when they learned that parts of their Beacon Hill neighbourhood were burning.
"We thought we could get back to the house, maybe grab a few things and get a vehicle," says Rachel, who was six months pregnant with the couple's first child. They had packed emergency bags the night before, but — thinking the fire threat had passed — left them at home that morning.
"As Patrick and a co-worker were driving towards Beacon Hill, there were flames coming over one of the hills. They had to turn around and go back north," says Rachel.
Stuck in traffic, they were both dropped off in the north end and had to walk to find each other. Luckily, a friend lived close by and they ended up leaving Fort McMurray with her, heading north to Canadian Natural with a wave of other evacuees. Looking out the back window, she saw a wall of smoke over the city, glowing orange.
"Police officers had barricaded the road so people were driving north on both sides of the highway," she says. "At that point, we realized how serious it was and we wouldn't be back in a day or two."
The couple caught a Canadian Natural flight to Edmonton at 1 a.m. They'll always remember the welcome and support they received from the company's employees, after a long and stressful day.
A Community Forever Changed
Early on, the Ures and the Drapeaus thought their homes were lost. As it turned out, the fires bypassed both homes, causing mostly smoke damage. The Ures returned to the community in mid-June.
"Unfortunately, many of our friends and co-workers have not been so fortunate," says Mavis. "We know people who have suffered a complete loss and significant damage. I also know people whose homes are intact but they suffer anxiety from escaping through the flames. Fort McMurray is forever changed by this event. Even though people are back, we are still in the process of establishing a new normal."
The Drapeau family couldn't return to their home until October. More than 400 burned homes in Beacon Hill needed to be demolished, and the couple wanted to be sure the environment was safe for baby Ashton, who arrived on August 2. His name — which means town of ash trees — was chosen as the couple flew over Fort McMurray on the morning of May 4, looking down at the burning community and forest.
"We were really excited to return to Fort McMurray. We both have careers here. Now we're going to have a family here," says Rachel. "We don't want to just walk away from it."