Clearwater resident Tom Grimm and his son, Brue, recently returned home after being evacuated from Fort McMurray.
“Compared to Fort Mac, 2003 was just a campfire,” according to the elder Grimm.
Tom was comparing the forest fire that forced the evacuation last week of that northern Alberta town with the fire of 13 years ago that destroyed Louis Creek and forced the evacuation of much of the lower North Thompson Valley.
Grimm, a heavy equipment operator, had experience fighting both.
The fire behaviour at Fort McMurray was much more extreme, he said, and the damage to homes and property far more extensive.
“I was on top of a hill they call Super Test in Fort Mac,” he recalled. “I looked toward town and it looked as if three or four volcanoes were going off.”
At one point the fire jumped the divided highway, the green meridians alongside it, plus the Athabaska River.
“Then it just took off towards Saskatchewan,” Grimm said.
The Clearwater man spent several days building fire guards within the city.
“I saw million-dollar homes going up in flames,” he said. “Hundreds of them, one after another.”
Grimm had been working at an oil sands mine about 35 km north of Fort McMurray when the dispatcher on the radio told them a state of emergency had been declared in the city.
They were told to bring all their equipment into a staging area.
Because of his experience fighting forest fires, the elder Grimm was assigned to building fire guards in Fort McMurray.
He had just about finished his shift before the emergency was declared and so he ended up working 38 hours straight.
He then took seven hours off, worked another 36 straight hours, and only then joined the evacuation.
“There’s nothing left green in Fort Mac to burn,” he reported.
His son Brue is a heavy duty mechanic.
He was working at a job-site about 45 km south of town when he got a phone call from his boss, telling him to come back to Fort McMurray as there was fire right inside the city.
He went to his condominium, picked up some stuff, and then headed north as the highway to the south was blocked.
“I drove to Fort McKay, which is about 40 km,” he said. “It was 10 km/hr all the way because of gridlock. It was unbelievable. People were riding horses because they wanted to get their animals out.”
On Wednesday he headed south, back through Fort McMurray and towards Edmonton.
“The fire was crossing the highway just as I went through,” he said. “The wind was 50 to 60 km/hr and the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see anything for about two kilometres.”
Going through Fort McMurray was eerie, he said. The city was empty, except for a few police, but the traffic lights were still working.
Every 25 km or so along the highway were rest stations where people could pick up free gasoline, food, water and other supplies.
Even when he got to Grasslands, which is about 250 km south of Fort McMurray, he could still see the column of smoke.
Both Grimms were full of praise for how people pulled together in the emergency.
“Everybody up there went out of their way to help each other,” said Tom Grimm.
The oil companies did not hesitate to put their heavy equipment on trucks and send it to fight the fire, he added.
The companies also opened up their camps to house and feed evacuees, no questions asked.
“It’s unbelievable what the people of Alberta did for the people of Fort McMurray,” the elder Grimm said, although he wondered just how useful the government had been.