Entwistle, Evansburg and Wildwood communities, 40 kilometres north of Drayton Valley, had been evacuated because of fires in late April. On May 4, emergency alarms had been sounding on TV and on cellphones from the Buck Creek fire 14 kilometres southeast of Drayton Valley. Citizens were advised to pack important documents, medications, clothing and food for three days. People were reassured the fire was east of the North Saskatchewan River; some were not so sure it would stay there. The inevitable happened. The fire jumped the river and headed west, mostly south of Highway 22. An evacuation order was given about 11:00pm on May 4.
My neighbour came to alert me of the order. I was already in bed. She rapped on my bedroom window and said, “Miriam, we have half an hour to evacuate, get up!”
I asked where we were to go. She said, “North to Stony Plain via Tomahawk.”
Once I woke up, I got into high gear. Memories of being on call as a nurse came flooding back to me. I put the supplies for three days in the car and tried calling my son who lives five miles northwest of Drayton Valley. There was no answer.
My next move was to drive over to Season’s Retirement Community, where my husband, who suffers from dementia, resides. The staff packed his belongings and medication. I signed him out. I went back home a block away to retrieve my cell phone recharging cord. I had a prompting the night before to fill my car with gas, which I had done first thing the next morning. I was thankful I did.
As I approached 50th Avenue, the traffic slowed dramatically. I had thought of going west to my son’s place, but when I saw the steady stream of traffic coming from the west, I joined Highway 22 going north. I was impressed and thankful that the traffic was leaving in an orderly manner. We were fortunate that there was no smoke or flames.
Soon my husband asked where we were going. Not wanting to alarm him, I said, "I am not sure."
The traffic crawled along like a caterpillar with red lights. I was pleased everyone was staying in the north bound lane, and no one was honking their horns or flashing their lights. The south bound lane had a steady stream of flashing lights and sirens blaring from emergency vehicles. Gradually we were able to speed up, only to slow down again to turn east on secondary Highway 624, a narrower bumpy road. I was getting tired, thinking I would take a rest north of Tomahawk. My husband was not able to relax. I kept going and turned east again on Highway 627. At least now the traffic was picking up speed, and soon I was able to drive the speed limit. I decided to carry on to Highway 60 and go to Devon, to try and get somewhere to stay. It was about 3.00 am then. I was happy to see a sign: 'The Inn' through the haze of the night. I eventually found the entry to reception only to be told, “Sorry no room In the inn.” It was reminiscent of Mary and Joseph’s plight the night of Jesus’ birth.
We carried on along Highway 60 through construction, an obstacle course of pylons, and it was the same on the Highway 19. Needless to say I was glad that the first motel we came to had a vacancy at a very reasonable rate. We dropped into bed at 4.00 am. It took me some time to relax enough to drop off to sleep in spite of being tired and road weary. My husband woke up just before breakfast time, however the receptionist was reluctant to give us bread when we asked for it after the given breakfast time of 9.30 am. We were too tired to move to another motel, so we stayed another two nights. On the next day I touched base with my family, my son from Drayton Valley did not have to evacuate.
Our two granddaughters were involved in the evacuation. Samantha, an RN, helped evacuate the patients from the Drayton Valley Hospital to Rocky Mountain House. Dakota, who works in the office at Shangri La Lodge in Drayton Valley, helped evacuate the residents, some of which ended up at the Devon Inn. Her aunt from Calgary was phoning me on my cell phone, which I wasn’t answering, so she asked Dakota to go over to my place to check to see if my husband and I had left, and by that time we had. She needed gas, but the line-up at the gas station was too long. She stayed with a friend north of town.
The next day I called Garth Blades, the People’s Warden at All Saints’ Drayton Valley. He and his wife Sandra and dog Murphy slept in the car the first night at Tomahawk. He began calling some parishioners whose cell phones he knew. It was comforting to know Bishop Stephen London had phoned him to say he was praying for us, as was the Rev. Robyn King, who tried contacting as many of the parishioners as she could.
As we were still in the Leduc area on Sunday, my husband and I attended St. Paul’s where we received a very warm reception and sound advice. We heeded the advice and stayed at two of the places where we were offered shelter. It was a time of renewal of friendship, of which we were very thankful. My son and daughter-in-law from Calgary area came to see us on the second weekend, thinking we would not be going home soon. On May 12 at 2:00 pm we received a welcomed phone call from our other son saying we were allowed to go home. My friend, however, told me we were welcome to stay another night, which we did.
We stocked up on groceries and filled our tank with gas before heading home on a very quiet highway. Our neighbours came out to give welcome hugs. On May 21, All Saints’ parishioners came together for a service of prayer prepared by Rev. Robyn. The congregation were allowed to add their prayers, which overwhelmingly included prayers of thanks for the firefighters, first responders, town and county administration and for the safe return to a town which had narrowly escaped a major disaster. There were a total of five houses burnt in the area surrounding town, with no lives lost.
After the service we had coffee and a time of fellowship, when many stories of kindness and hospitality were told. The people had mostly been in the Edmonton area, while some were scattered around Alberta.
Photos: Christel Durham. Both taken approximately two miles south of Drayton Valley. The pictures of the fire were taken the night of May 5. The picture showing the aftermath of burned trees was taken May 13.