Irish people living in Fort McMurray in Canada were among the 88,000 resident who fled their homes as wildfire continues to ravage the area.
Orla Healy from Newbridge, Co. Kildare, has described the rush to pack and leave their home behind as “the scariest experience of my life” as they joined the bumper-to-bumper traffic attempting to reach safety from the flames.
“It was the scariest experience of my life without a shadow of a doubt, to effectively try and pack up your life,” Healy told the Irish Times.
“To hit the road and see the flames coming after you, that’s pretty scary.”
Healy and her Canadian partner Dave Boutilier are now waiting out the fire in Edmonton, 236 miles (380 km) south of their home, but authorities are still unable to give any timeline as to when Fort McMurray residents will be able to move back to their homes.
Moving from Kildare in 2010, Healy is among the 5,000 Irish residents who have settled permanently in Canada since the start of the recession.
Now working in an human resources job with a major energy company, she also spoke of the large Irish community that has relocated to Canada, a community who are gathering together to support each other in the wake of the fire’s destruction.
"I didn't even know what Fort McMurray was back then,” said Healy of moving to Canada.
"But soon there were hundreds of Irish people there, working all over, and we took care of one another."
Now gathering in Edmonton, Healy is lucky at least in that her home may have suffered from extreme smoke-damage but is still standing. An older Irish couple who moved to Canada in the 1960s have offered her and her partner their basement as temporary accommodation until they receive word about returning home. The fear still remains, however.
"There aren't wildfires in Ireland," she said. "My partner and I are totally mentally exhausted, but we just can't turn our brains off. That siren sound still freaks me out."
"Fort McMurray is my home. I just love it up there. It's true, we don't know what's going on right now, yes, but we'll go back."
The Irish in Edmonton has shown enormous generosity to their fellow citizens from Fort McMurray. Geraldine Sillery, a 36-year-old office manager originally from Limerick, her fiancé Sean Cahill, 32, and their four-year-old daughter Orla have also been offered a place to stay free of charge by a Galway couple they met after spending several nights sleeping on the side of the road on the way to Edmonton.
Leaving Fort McMurray with their residency permits, a few clothes, and just a quarter tank of gas, they stayed on the side of the highway for two nights as traffic was so bad they feared they would run out of gas.
Eventually filling up in the small town of Conklin, they made their way to Edmonton only to learn last Friday morning that their apartment building had burnt down.
"Every morning now, we wake up and think, 'What's happening now? What are we going to do?" Sillery told CBC.
"No matter what, though, we'll go back to Fort McMurray, even if it's just to stand before the ashes of our home. We need that closure. It was four years of memories. My daughter was raised there. I need to be there again at some point."
Many believe that this sense of community will help the town to rebuild quickly, despite the enormous damage. It’s believed that this is the worst natural disaster to hit Canada and will cost as much as $9 billion Canadian dollars.
"Here's the thing: in Fort Mac, everyone's from somewhere else. It's 88,000 people who are all one family, and that's what the rest of the country doesn't understand," said a local Welsh man, Gareth Norris.
"We'll come back from this, that much I know."
For the first time in over a week, firefighters began to show some hope on Sunday that cooler conditions and changing winds would take the fire from the oil sands of Fort McMurray.
Orla Healy described the panic of the evacuation to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland: “We were told you’d better come home, as certain areas of town were under mandatory evacuation. Our area was not, but it was being watched because of the potential of having fire outbreaks.
“We rushed home, packed about three days worth of clothes, got passports, packed up food for the pets, and we made the break to try to leave town at that stage, unfortunately fire had broken across Highway 63 and had cut off our route south of town to go to Edmonton.
“We were in same boat as a lot of people, about 25,000 of us, the only way we could go was north. We just hit the road, bumper to bumper. We tried to find a work camp to put a roof over our head for the night.”
Thankfully, the couple live in an area that has been developed to prevent against such disasters.
“The neighbourhood is in the downtown core, near the hospital. A lot of work was done in that area to protect the infrastructure, so we were quite lucky in the location of our house,” she told the Irish radio show.
“The firefighters put on a great display, they fought for our city. We just happened to be in that locality. That’s part of the reason why we still have a house.
“Two neighbourhoods that were destroyed were literally just up the hill from us. We could see the fire coming down the hill to our house.
“Thank God we still have a roof over our head. What state it is in we don’t know or when we will get back. We’re all in limbo. We don’t know what’s going on.
“We were at the Irish Club in Edmonton today. Some of the Irish guys that work with a construction company in Fort McMurray got a call to go back to try and assess damage.”
Since it began on Sunday May 1, it is believed that fire has consumed 395,000 acres across the center of Canada’s oil sands region.
If anyone has anything to donate to Fort Mc Murray families,bring it down to the mall,still have one truck to fill! pic.twitter.com/SGZ3rXq3FF— Leah (@Leahypb) May 6, 2016