Sandra Meza, a single mom of three, tells Canadian Living about driving through the flames on the way out of Fort McMurray, searching for shelter and what she's going to do now.
It could have been a normal afternoon: Sandra Meza's kids were at school and she was doing laundry at home in Fort McMurray's Timberlea neighbourhood.
Then the phone rang.
"My friend, Gloria, called me and said, 'Sandra, you have to evacuate, you have to go and get your kids from school.' I went upstairs and looked out my back window, and I saw all the smoke," she says.
It was Tuesday, May 3 and the inversion that had been holding the raging wildfires outside of Fort McMurray at bay had just lifted. Flames and smoke filled the sky, and cars flooded the roads as residents of the Alberta community desperately tried to outrun the fire.
But Sandra wasn't among them. Instead, she was trying to get to her kids, 13-year-old Cielo, nine-year-old Lynn and seven-year-old Jonathan.
"It usually takes seven minutes to get to the elementary school, but it took me an hour," she says. "And when I got there, it was crazy: there were cars everywhere, moms were crying, kids were running around."
She signed Lynn and Jonathan out at the office, put them in the car and tried to make her way to the high school, where Cielo was waiting. But police had blocked the road.
"There were so many cars, you couldn't turn left," she says. "That's when the kids started crying—they saw the smoke, the people, all the accidents on Confederation Way. They were scared of everything that was happening."
Sandra decided the only thing she could do was head home; another friend, Patricia, was able to pick Cielo up, though they didn't get to Sandra's place until 6 p.m., an almost three-hour journey. By that time, Sandra had hastily packed a bag—and discovered that she had less than a quarter tank of gas.
Not that she could even get her car out of the driveway—thousands of cars were inching by, some on the sidewalk, others driving through backyards. Sandra had no choice but the wait for a break in the traffic. She and the kids hid out in the basement to avoid the smoke seeping in through the windows and while she waited, she tried to figure out where she could get gas. Media reports said there was none in Anzac, a tiny hamlet 45 minutes south of Fort McMurray, and there was certainly none nearby. Desperate, she reached out to Calgary resident Chris Caines, who had posted on a Fort McMurray Facebook page offering help to anyone who needed it. "This is my situation: I'm by myself with three kids, I'm trying to leave Fort McMurray but I only have a little bit of gas," she texted.
By 9 p.m., the smoke was only getting worse and the flames were steadily creeping closer; she hadn't heard back from Chris, but Sandra couldn't wait any longer. She bundled the kids in the car and got on the road.
In the car, Sandra tried Chris again, and this time he answered: he knew someone in Anzac with gas. Sandra just had to get there.
Anzac is a straight shot down Highway 63, then east on the 881 along the banks of Gregoire Lake. But earlier in the day, the wildfire had jumped the highway; getting to Anzac would mean driving through burning forest in a scene straight out of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster. "As we passed through all the fire, I told their kids to close their eyes," Sandra says. "But you know, kids are curious. Lynn was asking why God was not helping us. And Jonathan wanted to know why Aquaman was not coming. But I had to say, 'We'll talk later, okay?' because I had to concentrate on driving. I was thinking about the gas, and the traffic was stop and go."
Finally, the family made it to Anzac, where they met up with Bevy Here, Chris' contact, who delivered gas, water and snacks. But their journey was far from over. From Anzac, they drove to Conklin. It was 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning and Sandra hadn't slept all night.
"I couldn't drive anymore, so I parked at the side of the road, pulled out two blankets and told the kids, 'Okay, let's pretend we're camping.'" When she woke up mid-morning, she started driving again, this time to Lac La Biche.
In Lac La Biche, there were sandwiches and snacks, but not a hotel room where the family could rest for a while. Even worse, this is where their cat, Missy, got lost. Sandra had stopped the car for a quick break when Missy, probably anxious from hours in the car, ran out of the car. Though they tried calling for her, they couldn't coax her back—and Sandra couldn't stay.
"After Lac La Biche, I don't remember exactly where we went next, to tell you the truth. I was just driving, driving, driving. It was like I was in shock. I was just trying to go as far as I could," she says.
The only thing that made the family's odyssey manageable was the help they received along the way. When they finally made it to Edmonton, hotel employees offered Sandra a spacious room at a discount. From there, she called her friend Curtis English, who lives in Whitecourt, a town roughly midway between Edmonton and Grande Prairie. He offered the family a place to stay. When her car broke down, a stranger gave her a ride to the bus station. And when she and the kids arrived in Whitecourt and went to a Domino's Pizza to wait for Curtis, the staff there served them a meal for free.
Ready to Rebuild
Now the family is safe in Whitecourt, but the journey has taken a toll. Though Sandra has enrolled them in school, trying to get back into a familiar routine, all three kids miss their friends, their home and all their familiar comforts. Lynn keeps asking if they'll see their house again. Cielo has developed anxiety and lost her appetite. And truth be told, they're not alone.
"I went to the shelter in Whitecourt to try to find some clothes for the kids, and I had a moment where I didn't want to touch anything. I was thinking, 'Why do I need this, if I'm going back home? I have clothes at my place,'" Sandra says.
But right now, she doesn't know when she'll get to go home—or what she'll face when she does eventually get there. Neighbours have reported some houses have burned down and others have severe water damage, but she doesn't know exactly which ones. She vows she will go back, though.
"Every time you see a video about the neighbourhood, it hurts. Because it's not just your house; it's your community, the city you are part of," she says. "I'm originally from Peru. I came to Fort McMurray five years ago, and I made it my place. I've been studying English at Keyano College—I want to be a social worker. So I'm definitely going back to Fort McMurray."
If you want to help Fort McMurray evacuees, read our guide to find out how.