Brandon Tidy just finished up his first year at Simon Fraser University. He played for the men’s hockey team, and is trying to transfer into business.
He went back home for the summer hoping to make some money for school. He was going to see friends and family, and spend more time with his girlfriend. A typical summer for a lot of SFU students, with one major exception.
Brandon’s home is Fort McMurray. Within two days of being back, he was evacuated.
“I got back Sunday night [May 1] and there was some smoke. On Monday, it was really smoky. Tuesday, it was all clear, but by the afternoon it was bad and we heard on the radio basically just ‘Leave town,’” he recalled. “I was only back for a day and a half, and then right away we had this problem and we had to leave.
“The initial shock is over. Now it’s just kind of frustrating.”
Within 48 hours, his entire summer plan was gone. Instead, he and an entire city now had to look ahead, and quickly. He had less than half an hour to figure out a plan to get what he could in one fell swoop, and leave his home for what could be the last time.
“I was at the gym with my girlfriend and we got back to my house and they basically said on the radio that we had 20 minutes to get out. One minute you’re just planning lunch, the next minute you’re packing,” he said.
“My dad was at work and we were trying to go pick him up. We were trying to go north, but officers told us we had to go south. We actually drove through the fire, it was pretty crazy. Driving through town, you look to your left and you look to your right and all you see is flames. It was surreal. Once you get out of town, you drive 50 kilometres, and it’s clear blue skies again. It’s just really weird.”
A Family Divided
Brandon is now on Vancouver Island, where he grew up before moving to Fort McMurray seven years ago. He’s with family and his girlfriend, Sophie. While he and his family are all now safe, the evacuation was hectic as they were all split up. Brandon’s father was trapped for days by the fire.
“They’re safe now. My mom got out right away as well. I was worried about my dad, he got trapped north of Fort McMurray,” he said. “He was sleeping on a piece of plywood for four or five nights before they were able [to get to him]. He was supposed to fly out the next day, then eventually it cleared up enough for him to drive out.
“The smoke was so dense that even driving through the car they had to wear gas masks [. . .] The air quality was so bad, it was suffocating.
“That was a little tense, and my mom was having a hard time especially when my dad couldn’t get out of town, but now we’re all safe and out of town. Now we’re just waiting for when it’s safe to go home.”
The Next Step
It’s the waiting part now that could take up Brandon’s summer. With the fire still raging on, there’s no telling when evacuees can return to the city.
In an update on May 12, provincial officials said that there wasn’t going to be a way for them to tell for at least a couple of weeks when folks could return to Fort McMurray to see what remains of the city, which last month held more than 80,000 residents.
There’s no timetable in place for any sort of permanent return, which means Brandon and the tens of thousands of other evacuees are in limbo.
“We’re trying to make a plan, but it’s tough. You want to get a job and save money for school but no one wants to hire you for as little as two weeks depending on what happens,” he said. “Right now, it’s been great getting support from everyone. The whole nation has been supporting this cause.
“So I just keep putting myself on Kijiji and trying to do odd jobs for cash, trying to save some money and hopefully I’ll have a job to go back to when I get home.”
Brandon is one of the fortunate ones whose home wasn’t touched by the fire. He said it got as close as 700 metres, but smoke damage is the worst he’ll have to deal with personally.
“My home is likely going to smell like a campfire for a while, but at least I have a house to come back to so I’m really grateful for that,” he said.
The Road Ahead
Another thing he’s really grateful for is the “overwhelming” support he and the rest of Fort McMurray have received from everyone. The drive from Fort McMurray to Vancouver Island was filled with fundraisers, and the donations and relief efforts hit home for him. The kindness of strangers personified itself in a bar the first night on the road after he evacuated.
“Me and my girlfriend and a buddy from Edmonton went to go for a beer and when they ID’d us, they saw we were from Fort Mac. They said ‘Everything is on us, don’t worry about it.’ Everywhere you go, everyone’s trying to help out the best they can, and it’s awesome how kind Canadians are,” said Brandon.
“I just want to say thank you to anybody [who supported Fort McMurray] and even if they have no ties, being a Canadian people are still supporting the cause and it means a lot.”