Canada’s $6.9 Billion Wildfire Is the Size of Delaware—and Still Out of Control

The story of one Alberta family’s amazing escape from “The Beast.”

Tammy Tiedemann remembers the first time she took her kids to the pits. It was 2007. She was 35, a single mom, a Métis with Cree roots and Fort Mac proud: proud of the work she did for Shell Oil, the machines she operated, the toughness and camaraderie on the job, and proud of the mine itself, a monument to humanity’s capacity to act on a massive scale, something like the pyramids in reverse.

At the pit mine, 30 miles north of Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, Tiedemann’s 21-year-old son lit up when he saw enormous haulers being fed by dinosaur-size cranes. Her 14-year-old daughter saw the scored black earth, the gritty plumes of coke dust that gets between your teeth, and said, “I think you work in hell.”

Tiedemann’s teenager didn’t know it, but she echoed Rudyard Kipling. Riding through Alberta in 1907, on a tour of Britain’s colonial portfolio, the poet said the region “seemed to have all hell for a basement.” He meant it as a compliment. The land that stretches from the 49th parallel to the Northwest Territories had been a province for less than two years, but it was already proving to hold enough fuel to last two or more centuries. Most of it is located in the Athabasca oil sands. An estimated 166 billion barrels of oil, the third-largest petroleum reserve on the planet, sit beneath 54,000 square miles of boreal forest.

While many oil reserves sit conveniently beneath the earth in pools, tappable by derrick, the oil beneath the Athabasca was squeezed out eons ago by the same tectonic forces that raised the Rockies. It was mashed into the vast alluvial deposits of glacier-fed rivers, whose sand and clay sopped it up, like kitty litter on a garage floor. To unlock this mixture of sand and tarlike oil called bitumen, you must effectively reverse the geological process. First, you have to reach it. In the Athabasca, that’s possible via open pit mine. This requires removing the trees, the topsoil, the organic layer of swampy peat (muskeg), and the “overburden” of relatively oil-free sand and clay. Then the bitumen must be removed and separated out.

Fort McMurray wildfire
A wildfire flares up near Fort McMurray on May 5.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

In the open pits, electric shovels with 100-ton buckets cram bitumen-laden sand into the largest haul trucks anywhere. Hauler drivers such as Tiedemann dump each 400-ton load into a maw of spinning iron teeth, and from there the sand goes onto superhighway-scale conveyor belts and pipelines. The bitumen sand is crushed, slurried, and shaken, mixed with solvents, and steamed in boiler domes fanned by aircraft turbines until, finally, the oil can be skimmed and refined. Two tons of sand yield a single 55-gallon barrel of what’s called synthetic crude.

Producing one of these barrels requires two to five barrels of water. The mining operations in central Alberta have license to draw up to 192 billion gallons of it from the Athabasca River. Steam is recycled until it gets too filthy, and then it’s drained off into tailing ponds—30 square miles of silvery liquid, protected by the constant popping of air guns, to dissuade waterfowl from a toxic touchdown.

The first of these megapits started in 1967, with a partnership between Sun Oil of Ohio and Great Canadian Oil Sands, later known as Suncor. A decade later, they were joined by Syncrude, which brought a new generation of bitumen-separating techniques as well as 450,000 tons of mining equipment and construction materials to Fort McMurray, a former trading post that was quickly transforming into a resource hub.

Each new oil crisis brought more companies, bigger mines, and more fortune-seekers. Oil sands operations proved cost-efficient at scale, and by the 1980s, 10-story Ferris-wheel-size excavators worked the sand north of town, and carwash-size drag buckets carved out pits as large as 1,038 Superdomes. As the price of oil rose and the technology improved, the operations got larger. From 1999 to 2013, dozens of new players from around the world injected C$201 billion ($153.7 billion) into Athabascan projects, which, by 2014, boiled out 2.3 million barrels of synthetic crude a day, according to Energy Alberta, the provincial government’s development agency. Much of this went to the U.S., which relies on Canada for 40 percent of its imported oil. Proposed pipelines for carrying Albertan oil across Canada have been blocked for years, but neighboring provinces still share in the wealth; in all, the oil sands accounted for about 2 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product in 2015 (although some estimate that it’s more than double that).

While the sands have been a formidable economic force, they’re increasingly controversial. It’s not just the optics of seeping tailing ponds or the oil cars leaping rails and catching fire—it’s all of those things set against rising climate alarm. Last year, President Obama killed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried more bitumen south, citing ecological concerns. Last winter new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed Canada to a 30 percent reduction of its 2005 greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years. In the last week of May, Canadian government scientists reported that the bitumen-extraction process every day exhales a Deepwater Horizon’s dose of airborne pollutants linked to lung cancer and diabetes. With oil development of all stripes a target for climate activists, Alberta’s open pits, visible from space, have taken on the darker cast of Kipling’s and the Tiedemann daughter’s assessment.

And that was before it all caught fire.

Tammy Tiedemann
Photographer: Jason Franson/Bloomberg Businessweek

Fort McMurray lies in a forested valley 270 miles northeast of Edmonton, beneath the upside-down Y formed by the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. The outpost began as a convenience for European buyers meeting up with the pelt-laden canoes of their aboriginal supply chain. Sleepy for most of its history, Fort McMurray became a boomtown with the arrival of the mega-miners and was nicknamed Fort McMoney. When oil prices were high, some called it Fort Crack.

If you were willing to work, the money was addictive, with wages that lured workers from around the world. They came from Pakistan and Sudan, Ireland and Minnesota, and every corner of Canada, mostly from Newfoundland. By 1986, “Newfies” comprised 14 percent of Fort McMurray’s population, which had jumped to 88,000, and many were of a type: hard-living, hardworking, unfiltered white guys in baseball caps and wraparound shades who’d put in a few months, bank $48,000, put some into mortgages back east, and ride the snowmobile tracks till the money ran down. Then they’d do it again. Fly-in, fly-out workers put in three hard weeks, then took a break, speed-dialing Air Canada on the drive to the airport. Enough lost the battle with fatigue to give Highway 63—the two lanes in and out of Fort McMurray—a reputation as “the highway of death.”

Old-timers in Fort McMurray made fun of the Newfies, but they, too, “earned and burned”—made more in a few months than they’d ever made in a year, then blew it on parties or gambling. Or toys: jacked-up dually trucks, Ski-Doos, his-’n’-hers bikes. During the boom times after 2004, with $150-a-barrel oil and “double-double” overtime pay—double wages and double pension deposits, too—there was enough to take care of bills with plenty to spare.

Chart: Crude’s share of Canada’s exports, by value

Tiedemann, like hundreds of thousands of others, saw the oil sands as an on-ramp to the Canadian dream. She was a small-town girl who understood her grandfather’s native Cree better than she spoke it, and while three kids by three men starting at 15 years old wasn’t the way she’d planned it, that’s the way it happened. She knew her hometown of Lac La Biche wasn’t going to take her where she wanted to go. “It didn’t open doors for me” is the way she put it. She moved north with a plan to “work her way up the ladder.”

Tiedemann began working for Syncrude at 21, as a janitor. She was emptying wastebaskets in a dispatch office one day when she looked out the window. There, grunting through the wasteland, was this … thing. It was a truck bigger than her house. “I asked the girl next to me, ‘What’s that?’ And she told me, ‘That’s a hauler.’ And I said right then, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”

Tiedemann enrolled in heavy equipment operator school. She got qualified for graders, haulers, and forklifts, and got a Class 1 license for driving rigs. But she wasn’t satisfied with some puny 18-wheeler. She wanted the truck she’d seen out the window. She took her papers to the oil sands, got more training, got tested, and got her ticket punched.

The first time Tiedemann went through the gates, she felt it. The big extraction sites were “a different world,” on a different scale—a sort of Mordor separated from the forests by mountainous berms, wide gravel firebreaks, and security fences. The center of each site is a city unto itself—a city of scaffolding and ladders, bitumen processing and improving centers, towers of belts and tubes, topped with lights and flame. As many as 54,000 work there at a time, and it has its own rules: can’t swear, can’t tell prejudiced jokes, hats off in the dining halls.

Tiedemann worked three days, then three nights, packing lunch to last the 12-hour shifts. To get to work, she could catch a company bus at 6 a.m. and get dropped off at 9 that night or stay on-site in luxury trailer dormitories that could feel a bit like prison. It didn’t matter: She shared them with 75 other men and women who soon became family.

Some days she got the D-11 bulldozer, others the 24-H or 24-M graders, but her favorite was that 797 heavy hauler. A 400-ton-capacity dump truck, it’s a million dollars riding on 14-foot tires that can kill a man with a blowout, and Tiedemann was in the driver’s seat. From the outside maybe it did look like hell, but if you weren’t there, you couldn’t know. Tiedemann racked up nine years with Syncrude and then almost seven years more at Shell, making $64 an hour and an additional $7 going into the pension, with plenty of double-double overtime.

As her fortunes improved, Fort McMurray changed, too, attracting a service sector beyond the immediate needs of oil companies and oil workers: professionals and families, radio DJs and newspaper editors, dental practices and yoga centers, air traffic controllers and golf pros. For her generation, Fort McMurray ceased to be Fort Crack. It became a real town—and home.

Later, with her employment stable and three kids grown, she indulged a bit. She picked up a Dodge 1500 pickup, a 23-foot camping trailer, and a credit card. But what she loved more than anything else was her motorcycle. Her years in the sands came down to a $44,000 chromed-out show bike with a Stage 1 110 engine and the tall outlaw-biker handlebars they call ape hangers. It was one of only seven like it in the country, loud and fast and handsome, not a thing but a “him.” For Tiedemann, that Harley Davidson CVO Breakout defined her bucket list.

By August of last year, however, the good times were behind her. Tiedemann lost her job at Shell. She managed to find temp work with a Syncrude subcontractor, making a quarter less and sharing an apartment with three other women west of downtown. As the price of oil began to tumble in 2015, the Albertan economy went into free fall. Unemployment shot up, vacancy rates skyrocketed, and housing prices tanked. Suddenly, workers that had paid $500,000 for a trailer were out of jobs. They couldn’t make their mortgage payments, and they couldn’t sell, either. Jokes about homeowner’s insurance being the only way out were met with laughter a little too loud.

Police officers direct traffic under a cloud of smoke from a wildfire in Fort McMurray on May 6.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

On the morning of Monday, May 2, Tiedemann’s son Winston, 30, checked the job postings on the website for the Local 92 laborers union. No luck. He was on the list, but his number was low. Until something opened up, he would wait, caring for his cousin Vanessa Chikita’s 4-year-old son, Caleb. Given the unseasonably warm weather, he took Caleb out to play, finding the unfinished work of a beaver along the wooded trails before putting in some time on the swings beside the Catholic church in Dickinsfield, a neighborhood in Fort McMurray’s upper left corner. At one point, Caleb pointed to the forest, where a white ribbon of smoke rose from the spiky evergreen peaks. “You could smell it,” Winston Tiedemann remembers, “but we didn’t feel no threat.”

The day before, a wildfire patrol helicopter had spotted a small blaze near the Horse River, 9.5 kilometers (6 miles) southwest of Fort McMurray. Within 45 minutes of the sighting, another chopper dropped four firefighters armed with water pumpers, chain saws, and axes, before circling back with a tow bucket to find a pond. At 4 p.m., the blaze was logged as MWF_009, meaning it was the ninth discovered in the region so far this year.

If anything, the fire was a sign of spring. In an average year, about 1,600 wildfires flare up across Alberta. Most are brought under control within a day, and during fire season, most are caused by lightning. This time of year, the more usual cause was man—a cigarette butt, the hot muffler of an ATV, a spark from a power line. The cause of MWF_009 is still under investigation. But with this many humans riding and smoking and living smack up against the dry, dense woods, it was only a matter of time.

Subarctic forests crown the planet. While less celebrated than rain forests, they’re comparable in size and biomass, representing one-third of the forests on the planet. And they’ve always burned. Fires clean the forests and help them grow, their heat releasing seeds from the cones of lodgepole pines. Today’s fires, however, are more frequent, bigger, hotter, and closer to people. An area the size of North Dakota, 70 million acres, burned in Russia in 2012. Last year saw Alaska’s second-busiest fire season on record—768 fires that consumed more than 5 million acres. Those numbers are projected to increase. The U.S. National Climate Assessment has the area consumed by wildfire doubling by 2050, and tripling by 2100 if the Arctic warming trend continues.

Most wildfire policy involves stepping on fires close to inhabited areas as quickly as possible, resulting in an increasing number of mature-growth trees and an accumulation of tinder. As the climate gets hotter and drier, that policy ends up creating something of a time bomb: a forest loaded with fuel, in which a simple spark can rear up into an inferno that answers only to God or rain.

MWF_009 surprised the expert wildfire crews at first, spreading in every direction like the burning Bonanza map and blooming from 2 to 60 hectares in just two hours. On Sunday evening the wind pushed it close enough to Highway 63 that Royal Canadian Mounties walked the campgrounds south of town with bullhorns, evacuating the semi-permanent trailer homes. For residents in the houses across the highway, however, evacuation was voluntary, a standard precaution. The fire was close and oddly aggressive, but it was relatively small and being worked by planes and choppers and professional wildfire fighters. By the time Caleb saw the fire, it had grown to 1,250 hectares but was moving away from town. That evening, the evacuation orders were rescinded, and Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake’s tweet carried less alarm, more common sense: “So really don’t smoke driving a quad in the backcountry to light a campfire and set off fireworks!” But the danger hadn’t passed.

Map: A wildfire the size of Delaware

Tuesday morning broke clear and blue. Even the smell of smoke from the day before was gone. Caleb’s mom, Chikita, 30, quickly dressed for work, again leaving the boy with his “big uncle” Winston.

Winston Tiedemann woke late, checked the Local 92 site again, and made breakfast for the boy, expecting another chill day. His cell phone rang around noon. It was Chikita. She said she was coming home; Tiedemann should go outside and look for smoke. He didn’t bother at first and remained unworried—the fire from the day before was on the other side of the Athabasca River, a natural fire break 1 kilometer-wide.

After a spell, he and Caleb stepped out front. A black curtain rose from below the ridge, extending to the south and west. It was a hypnotic thing, inky and rolling, and behind it, the two could see flames. There were ashes in the wind and glittery sparks that landed on the lawn.

Around one o’clock the wind shifted, and, as Tiedemann and Caleb watched, the larches and pines on the south side of the river lit up like candles. The smoke billowed and parted, and the flames marched higher. Tiedemann realized it had jumped the river. There was nothing between it and them. Tweets from local authorities that morning confirmed as much.

People gather for gas handed out at a rest stop near Fort McMurray on May 4
People gather for gas handed out at a rest stop near Fort McMurray on May 4.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

@AlbertaWildfire says a five hectare fire has cross the Athabasca River. 10 firefighters are en route #ymmfire #ymm

Within the hour, the authorities tried to dispel panic by telling residents what to expect.

@AlbertaWildfire: we’ll start seeing full crown fire (trees fully engulfed) around noon today #ymm #ymmfire #rmwb

By 2 p.m., Chikita was home and had begun frantically packing a few things—baby pictures, clothes for Caleb, toothbrushes—and called Tammy Tiedemann. At 2:05 p.m., the evacuation order became mandatory.

Tammy had been sleeping off a night shift, with her alarm set for 4 p.m., when she heard a banging at her door. She ignored it, fell back asleep, and then heard it again. She remembers thinking, “Who’s the jerk?” then, shuffling toward the door, “Why’s it so dark?”

Tiedemann opened the door. “It was some neighbor lady,” she says. “I never seen her before.” The woman was breathless. “They’re evacuating. Listen to your radio,” the woman said, before marching off to the next door.

Tammy turned on the radio. “It’s a song, but a minute later it makes the dee-do-dee-do, that electronic break-in noise, and says, ‘This is an evacuation. Beacon Hill and Abasand Heights are evacuating in 10 minutes, Grayling Terrace has a half-hour to evacuate. I repeat …’—which, you never want to hear.” Tiedemann’s Grayling Terrace neighborhood was a small one, a cluster of houses squeezed into the hollow beside Highway 63, hills on either side, the forest tight behind. Those woods were now on fire. That woke her up.

Tiedemann had worked in the fire emergency crews at the mine sites. She knew that seconds count. She started pulling drawers from her dresser, jamming the good stuff into plastic garbage bags, doing the math in her head. Twenty minutes on the evacuation clock. Out the window she could see trucks streaming down 63, fleeing the neighborhood directly to her north. That’s when she called Chikita and said she was on her way with her truck. She could fit the garbage bags and take her roommate, too. But she couldn’t fit the Harley.

Ten minutes. It was time to go. Tiedemann looked from the fire to her room and the stuff she’d bought, the king bed and good duvet, the chest of drawers. She’d worked hard for this stuff, and now it might burn. She said a little prayer, hoping, “Please God, don’t let it.” Then she thought of her bike again. No way in hell was she leaving that bike behind. She could move it to a safer place, she thought. She still had a few minutes left.

Vanessa Chikita and Caleb in Edmonton
Chikita and her son, Caleb, in Edmonton.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Bloomberg Businessweek

Forest fires are rated by their intensity. Experts consider those above 4,000 kilowatts per meter to be too dangerous to be worked by fire crews on the ground, and water bomber aircraft are futile at 10,000 kW/m. By the time Tiedemann heard the evacuation order, the heart of the fire near her home was estimated to be raging at 100,000 kW/m. The authorities no longer called it by a number or its place of origin. Now they called it the Beast.

Even a small fire like MWF_009 can turn catastrophic under the right conditions, especially when the temperature in degrees Celsius tops the relative humidity. Wildfire experts call this the crossover point, and before noon on May 3 the forests of northern Alberta were well past it. Soon the temperature hit 30C and the relative humidity had dropped to 15 percent. The Beast was raging hot enough to create its own weather system. More than 2,600 hectares of resin and cellulose were burning, superheating the air and sending it ballooning up into the stratosphere. That great hot column drew its breath from all directions, fueling and pushing the fire like a spinning top. The hotter a forest fire burns, the faster the air from the center shoots up, and the more air it draws from outside the fire, until 90 kilometer-per-hour gusts are feeding a convection column 16 kilometers tall. In extraordinary cases, the resulting pyrocumulonimbus thunderhead may shoot lightning bolts miles into the surrounding forest, sparking new fires like an incendiary mother ship seeding its radius. It’s rare, but it happens. It was happening now. Meanwhile, as the hot chimney of the convection column continued to rise, edges of that column started to cool and collapse in the frigid upper atmosphere, spewing flaming debris for miles.

Understanding the fire didn’t make it predictable. The Beast marched with the prevailing winds. It danced and staggered to the tune of updrafting fire whirls and downbursts. It flared and puffed with fluctuations of heat and humidity. And as it grew and moved and intensified, the Beast was increasingly dangerous for fire crews to engage.

Ground teams had worked through the previous night, bulldozing fireguards to starve the flames’ advance, but the fire was in the wind. Arrows of ember sailed over the bulldozed spaces, igniting the tree line beyond and forcing crews to retreat. Air tankers and helicopters, unable to attack the flames themselves, continued to lay down red torrents of fire retardant in pincer patterns. Fire crews from the Suncor facilities barreled south toward the neighborhoods of Thickwood and Wood Buffalo, tearing through fences and backyards until they reached the forest edge. Pumper trucks with turreted hoses doused rooftops until the water pressure flagged. Here, the firefighters watched as the advancing fire hit the line of soaked trees and stumbled, burning and steaming but sparing most of the houses; in other places along the line, the fire simply rolled through.

By 3 p.m., nearly all the trailer homes in Fort McMurray’s Continental Park were incinerated. Homes in the Abasand neighborhood began to smolder; some burst into flame, others caught slowly from the glowing pine embers that had blown onto their cedar-shingle rooftops. In abandoned neighborhoods, dogs and cats roamed the streets, cars and trucks lay scattered where they had run out of fuel, and rest stops were littered with tankers of crude, unhitched from their tractors as their drivers fled.

Despite the planes and helicopters, the flames had continued to grow exponentially, gathering size and power in the forest, burning hot and deep through the tree layer and as much as 5 feet into the peat, where it might smolder for months or more, traveling underground and seeding new fire. Local experts said they’d never seen a wildfire move this aggressively; afterward they’ll need to rewrite the book on how to manage it. At press time, the fire remained out of control and was 1 of 16 active wildfires in Alberta.

Evacuees watch the wildfire near Fort McMurray on May 4.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

It seemed to take an eternity for Tiedemann to arrive. Chikita called her aunt repeatedly, checking in, getting no answer. Winston worried. Chikita was pissed but tried to keep Caleb calm, the three of them waiting in the driveway and watching for the big Dodge while burning pine needles rained down. Finally they saw it. Tammy was instantly defensive. She’d said she was coming! Chikita handed Caleb to Winston, and he loaded him into a child seat, chatting, trying to keep it normal. Tammy was freaking: talking fast, chain-smoking, and shaking so badly she couldn’t work the lighter. She handed Winston the keys.

They inched east toward 63, the only path of escape for the town’s entire population. The fire was raging across the highway to the south now. At the intersection of 63, a policeman waved everyone north; the lane south was blocked by fire.

“But north didn’t make no sense to me,” Winston said later. The road went to the oil sands and the work camps and then pretty much ended. If they could get past the fire, south led to family and civilization.

Tammy wanted to go south, too, to MacDonald Island, where she’d stashed her Harley while Winston, Chikita, and Caleb awaited rescue. Still, they had no choice but to join the convoy north. They were silent for a while. They’d only gotten about a kilometer in the crawling traffic before Winston calmed down enough to do the obvious thing and look at the gas gauge. The needle tilted down to less than a quarter tank. Now they had to backtrack, wasting more time.

The only gas station left had six pumps and twice as many lines of cars trying to get to them. They waited an hour, then another. The scene was classic Canadian civility cut with universal human panic. Newcomers formed their own lines, or cut in, then allowed others to cut in. The gas station owners marshaled traffic, but it was impossible to manage everything, and arguments started, one turning into a fistfight. The sky was blue on one side, black and purple and glowing with fire to the west and south. It was hard to watch, hard to look away.

Every pump was jammed, but one was dedicated to people with jerrycans. It was shorter and faster, but Tiedemann didn’t have a jerrycan. Early on, the gas station had started selling off bottles of windshield washer fluid. People bought the bottles, dumped out the fluid, a river of blue stuff running down the street. But even those were gone.

Chikita and Tammy bought some soda, chips, and jerky for Caleb. Winston’s place in line had barely moved; this wasn’t going to work. Chikita and Winston exchanged a look—she’d go out, find something. Chikita headed off toward the neighborhoods. Tammy sat, smoking, talking, till Winston suggested, “Hey, Ma? Why don’t you go take a look, too.” A half-hour later, Tammy and Chikita came back. Chikita had a red jerrycan in her hand, grabbed out of the back of a truck she’d found in a nearby neighborhood. She felt bad about taking it, until she thought of saving Caleb.

Chikita, Tammy, and Winston joined the jerrycan line, each filling it once. Now they had more than half a tank in the Dodge. Four hours later, when they finally got to 63 again, the south lane was open, the cop gone. They asked themselves again: north or south?

“We can get my bike!” Tammy said.

“Mom ...”

But Tammy wouldn’t stop.

“Let’s go to Mac Island,” she said. “Let’s get my bike.” That’s when the others realized why it had taken her so long to pick them up.

Cars were sideswiping one another and driving on. Winston had seen a van plow through fences and over the sidewalk, cars following. Other cars just waited in line. People walked the highway carrying suitcases or babies. A pickup had a fire in its bed, a family’s belongings torched. And now this—Tammy crying over a bike while a 4-year-old sat quietly, watching fire eat his town.

They crossed the Athabasca. They could see the bridge to Mac Island—it wasn’t on fire. None of the other cars was making that turn; it was a dead end. They were all very quiet. Then Winston grunted in disgust, and swung the wheel left toward the bridge. The bike was where Tammy had left it, by a park. She cried when she saw it, still there, fine.

She started pulling on her gear, everything she had, the gloves and helmet, tying the leather balaclava tight around her neck and pulling it up high over her nose, adding the wraparound glasses. Winston looked—were they just plastic? They’d melt with a lighter. He looked away.

“I’ll be quick,” Tammy said. She started to check the mirrors but saw Winston’s look and just flipped the switch and started the bike up. “Don’t worry about me,” she yelled.

“Is Auntie going to ride in the fire?” Caleb asked.

“Auntie,” Chikita yelled. “We really got to go.”

Winston didn’t like it. His mom was going to get herself killed. Smoke rolled over them, turning the sun to a pinprick. Tammy turned around at the light, saw them staring at her through the windshield. She gave a big thumbs-up. Then she steered up the ramp to the highway and entered the stream of cars headed south.

Winston had never seen anything like it. The forest and street of houses to the right were burning. A gas station had blown up. The Denny’s and Super 8 in flames. Farther on, the forest on the right was exploding, the Aspens popping like firecrackers. And there’s his mom, driving through the smoke and ash on her chromed-out bike, hands high on the ape hangers, her rearview mirrors black with smoke.

The wildfire moves toward the town of Anzac from Fort McMurray on May 4
The wildfire moves toward the town of Anzac from Fort McMurray on May 4.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

Their plan had been to meet up in Anzac, a town 26 miles down the road, but that didn’t work out. They followed Tammy closely until they’d gotten through the fire, but because of the traffic, they split up, Tammy taking advantage of her bike to ride the shoulder and Winston doing his best in four-wheel drive off the side of the road in a gulch beside the highway. When they didn’t find her in Anzac, Winston, Chikita, and Caleb continued on to Lac La Biche, 171 miles to the south. It was 2 a.m. on May 4 by the time Winston got to his grandma’s house. She cried when she saw them. Winston teared up himself. Tammy finally joined them around 4 p.m. that afternoon. So much had happened in the last 24 hours.

Map: Fort McMurray still stands

Then began the wait. For 90,000 evacuees in the surrounding cities and towns, days turned to a week, and then weeks. The displaced were no longer weekenders, they were refugees. They were offered shelter in dormitories on raised platforms with corrugated roofs. Children were invited to improvised schools, but the students from Fort McMurray were promised they’d be advanced a grade automatically for next fall. The outpouring of support and donations from fellow Canadians was overwhelming, and even recent arrivals from Syria contributed.

But what the majority of the evacuees wanted most was information. They traded news and rumors from Facebook and studied satellite maps for clues about what had happened to their homes. They followed each news item about the holdout who’d broken windows to rescue pets, another who looted abandoned homes, and a man who’d sneaked back into town to douse his unburned home with gasoline. (It burned, and so did two neighboring homes. Some speculated he did it for the insurance money.)

Two teenagers died during the evacuation in an accident on the road south in which a fuel truck exploded. Some 2,400 structures burned in Fort McMurray, and a few neighborhoods had been destroyed, but as much as 85 percent of the town remains—saved or simply spared, it’s hard to say. Critical infrastructure, such as the hospital and water treatment facilities, was left standing.

With the deadwood cleared or burned, the evacuees will be allowed to return beginning on June 3. The “Fort Mac Strong” have vowed to rebuild, and many surely will. There will be work just cleaning up. On Sunday, May 29, Winston finally got a call from his union. He’s been assigned to clear debris from the fire, to literally pick up the pieces.

Chikita took the bus south to Edmonton, back to her parents’ house, where her sister and brother-in-law also live. Chikita appreciates the hospitality, but she’d left home for a reason. For the first few days, Caleb talked nonstop, and only about fire and death. To hear him tell it, everyone was dead; his friends were dead, his neighbors and their pets, even his toys.

Tammy Tiedemann has been moving from place to place, most recently visiting her youngest in Calgary. On June 4 she intends to drive up to Fort McMurray, a “Ft. Mac Proud” decal across her truck’s rear window, an “Alberta Strong” tattoo on her forearm. She’ll check her camper and apartment, but will she stay? Like many of those who have worked in the oil sands, she’d like to transition to something greener or take some time off, maybe touring the national parks. If oil comes back, though, the money may be too good to resist.

Fort McMurray evacuation traffic
Traffic on May 3 leaving Fort McMurray.
Photographer: Jason Franson/Canadian Press