Last week Phaedra McEachren returned home to Port Alberni as one of the evacuees from Fort McMurray. As a cook at Noralta Lodge, an accommodation facility for workers in the oil and gas industries, she was one of the last to leave during the mandatory evacuation from the growing wildfire.
Located about 18 km north of Fort McMurray, McEachren remained relatively safe. A week ago the fire appeared to be contained, but within 24 hours, McEachren said the fire chief announced it had jumped the river and highway. From where she was, McEachren had a view of plumes of smoke moving closer, and the sense of fear at the lodge grew.
“There was a lot of tension and fear, but also a lot of camaraderie with our team members,” she said. “We wanted to help the families (who fled to the lodge). There were a lot of tears and heartbreak, but they were grateful. We made kid-friendly lunches. I played with (the children) on my break and let them wear my cook’s hat.”
By Thursday, the evacuees staying at the lodge had to leave as the fire intensified.
McEachren said the working conditions were difficult. The kitchen was about 35 degrees Celsius and smoky.
“It was very smoky and hazy,” she said. “It was hard to breathe, I was coughing and my eyes were burning. It was very emotional but we knew we had to keep it together for all the families who lost their homes…by the time everyone was evacuated, I broke down.”
That was just after McEachren finished working 22 straight 12-hour shifts.
The fire continued to grow and move north, so the entire lodge, including all workers, were evacuated by the weekend. While she was in the midst of it, McEachren said she heard of all the goodwill and offers to help.
“It’s amazing to know how many people stepped up to help others in need,” she said. “People with no connection, yet willing to help.”