GP John O’Connor said he found it hard to explain the ferocity and speed with which the flames spread to Fort McMurray.
“The fire is indescribable — the size of it and what it’s done,” he said.
“There has been unbelievable loss. Neighbourhoods are gone; schools have been burnt to the ground; the new airport is shut and under threat, most of the old airport has been consumed; there are exploding petrol stations; a Cal Gas depot went up like a bomb; our hospital is empty, restaurants and hotels are all in ashes. It’s like a moonscape.”
Speaking from the relative safety of Fort McKay, a town of 800 residents and now also several hundred evacuees, about 56km north of Fort McMurray, Dr O’Connor said even there, they couldn’t escape the fire.
“We’re looking at the smoke billowing into the sky 35 miles away. The wind changed direction and is blowing it away from us now but when it comes our way, it’s awful. It was like thick fog here yesterday.”
A native of Corbally in Limerick, Dr O’Connor, 58, and his wife, Charlene, a nurse, commute from their home in Edmonton in southern Alberta to Fort McMurray most Sundays, spending part of the week working at the hospital there and part in Fort McKay where they were when the emergency evacuation order for Fort McMurray was issued on Tuesday.
While the entire population of 80,000 began fleeing the city, Dr O’Connor and Charlene began a perilous journey towards it, trying to find Charlene’s mother.
“She’s in her 70s, she doesn’t have a cellphone and we didn’t know where she was,” he said. “It was an unbelievable journey. It was only 45 minutes into Fort McMurray but as we were travelling, it was changing by the minute.
“The fire was moving everywhere. It was apocalyptic. And this was when it was a fraction of the size it is now.
“We couldn’t find my mother-in-law. It turned out she’d gotten a lift from a stranger. She’d left her house with her little dog and a small case she’d thrown some odds and sods into and the clothes she was wearing. That’s all she has. Her home, her whole neighbourhood, Beacon Hill, is gone.”
Dr O’Connor’s daughter, Justine is a nurse at the hospital. she, her husband, and their two girls were also forced to leave their home.
“My son-in-law set up the baby monitor on the window looking out on the green belt in the direction the fire was approaching before they left and it was still on and he was still receiving pictures on his iphone earlier today but who knows what will happen.”
Dr O’Connor’s sons Derek, an EMT at the hospital, and Donal, who works for the Suncor oil company just north of the city, had to leave with their partners as well.
“It’s neighbourhoods, communities, workplaces — everything gone. The water and sewage systems are down. I’m sure we will be truly shellshocked when we finally get back to Fort McMurray, what’s left of it.”
Dr O’Connor, who has worked in the region for 18 years, has been an outspoken campaigner on the impact of the massive oil industry operations on the environment and health in the region, but he said the companies’ landing strips were proving invaluable.
“We’ve been able to get medical supplies sent up by air. We’ve also moved some people out and we have a list of elders, people with respiratory issues, pregnant women, children, patients with cancer, who will be flown out first if conditions get difficult.
“I’m still finding this all hard to believe. We haven’t really slept. Just a few hours. We flew to Fort McMurray on Sunday and we saw the fire from the air but it was only about 300 acres.
“We couldn’t imagine this happening.
“There have been two deaths in a collision but no-one killed in the fires, which is remarkable. But lives have certainly been changed forever.”