A Fort Mac Evacuee Thanks Rossland

Sara Golling
By Sara Golling
May 24th, 2016

An evacuee from Fort McMurray wants to thank Rossland for helping her and her family have what she calls “a soft landing” when they arrived here, exhausted and reeking of chemical smoke from the wildfire devastating swaths of the boreal forest — and the city of Fort McMurray.  Lisa Chobanuk-Borse (who grew up in Rossland) and her two sons, Aidan and Evan, are staying with Lisa’s mother, Roseanne Chobanuk.

Lisa tells a harrowing tale of the evacuation of her sons’ schools with only moments of notice, complicated by chaotic traffic jams.  And then the evacuation from Fort Mac itself:  warned to leave immediately, first they were directed to travel northward toward the work camps.  Her husband is still there — Syncrude’s chief pilot and travel manager, he is normally based in Fort Mac but now working out of Edmonton to help get the plants back in operation.   Lisa and her boys drove north for about 70 kilometers, but the vehicle was running out of fuel until a gas truck came along and re-fueled those who needed it.  There was a night spent under a bridge with many other evacuees, and at times there were flames leaping through the forest beside the road.  Some of the camps filled up and had no room for more evacuees, and Lisa and the boys were directed from one place to another. 

Then at 4:00 in the morning,  they were directed to leave again, immediately, and go south.  Lisa described the scenes they drove through as “post-apocalyptic” — everything was black, there were abandoned vehicles everywhere, buses flipped upside-down, and in one place, the disturbing sight of an empty baby stroller on the roadside.   And everywhere, dense acrid smoke.  There was the panic of not knowing if they could get through, as trees blazed, smoke swirled  and burning embers fell.  Lisa related scenes of the fire coming so close to the jammed highway that some people abandoned their cars and ran from the flames, fearing they’d be trapped and burned inside their vehicles.   There was the profound distress of not knowing whether their home and its contents would survive the fire, or be burned to a heap of toxic ash.   So far, Lisa’s home has not burned, but she expects that there will be a great deal of smoke damage.   (A CBC article warns us that the ash left behind after the fires poses real hazards from contamination with lead, arsenic, and other minerals, as well as dioxins and furans.)

But in all the panic, people were kind to each other and helped others make it through — with food, water, and with fuel for the fleeing vehicles. 

Lisa was one of the lucky ones who was able to take the family’s dogs along when the evacuation orders came.  But she admits that in the stress of the moment, she forgot a carefully prepared bag of “essential items” and was never able to return to their home to get it.  “All we had in the vehicle was a bottle of water and a bag of cashews.  No extra clothing, no camping gear, nothing.” 

Lisa went to friends in Edmonton and checked in with the Red Cross.  “They’re doing an amazing job,” she reported, “but I was so grateful that we didn’t have to stay there (at the Red Cross shelter).  All those people on cots, with no place to go … we were so fortunate, compared with most.”  She phoned her mom in Rossland.  “Come home!” urged  Roseanne.  So they did.  “The boys love coming here anyway.”  They arrived here just under a week after the first evacuation order on “Terrible Tuesday.”

There was the issue of finishing the school year.  Lisa’s older son was doing advanced prep courses, and “needs to finish the year strong.”  Seven Summits Centre for Learning  welcomed the boys, and they are very impressed with it — “That school is just incredible.  They let you work at your own pace, they help when you need help and they don’t let anyone fall through the cracks.”   For the school’s mountain biking events, one son had to acquire a bike on very short notice, and Revolution Cycles  enabled that at a very reasonable cost. 

Having left their home in Fort McMurray with only the clothes they were wearing at the time, the family needed a few more items in their wardrobes.  Revival Boutique helped them with that by providing 20% off on their choices.  Son Aidan is a competitive swimmer and was scheduled to do his lifesaving program in Fort McMurray, but now Rossland Recreation has been able to schedule him for that program here, with a bursary to help the family with the cost. 

When her “check engine” warning light came on near Creston, Lisa worried that driving through the flying embers had caused some damage.  She had gone to school with Darryl Brost of  Brost Auto Worx in Trail, so took her vehicle there and had it thoroughly checked out — then  found that Brost wouldn’t accept any payment.

The family dogs’ coats had absorbed the nasty chemical stink of the fires, and Tails Pet Supplies gave them cleansing baths that finally deodorized them.

Lisa summarized, “I’ve just been completely blown away.  I didn’t expect to get so far away from Fort Mac and still have people being so incredibly generous.”

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