Escape from the Fort McMurray wildfire

Gitz stands looking out to the land for one last time, the day before him and his family escaped the blaze that would continue to stretch over 2000 square kilometres.

FORT McMurray – Gitz Crazyboy is a Blackfoot/Dene youth worker and land defender from Fort McMurray, Alberta, who has been fighting for the protective rights of the land and its indigenous peoples for many years, all the while living next door to the infamous environmental scar left by the oil sands extraction.

His work generating climate change awareness and warning of the impact of the oil sands to the environment has brought Gitz to many places around the world and put him in many (sometimes outrageous) situations, but none can compare to the tragedy that transpired in the past week. As news spread across social media of the wildfire surrounding Fort McMurray, many of his friends in Six Nations began to worry about him and his family’s safety.

Here is his story of the day he and his family escaped the blaze:

“I was in Abasand, probably the first neighborhood that was hit,” recalled Gitz, whose parents’ home was in Abasand, a neighbourhood surrounded by forest all around. “For the past couple of days we watched the fire burn east to west. It came dangerously close to town, so we evacuated ourselves. Even then only two communities were evacuated; Beacon Hill and Gregoire.”

One of Gitz’s older brothers lived in Beacon Hill with his wife and kids.

“On that day while driving south on [Highway] 63 you could see the fire just over the horizon which felt like it was about 3 kilometres away. They had days to fight this small fire that was steadily growing in size and becoming more uncontrollable, but the wind changed favourably away from the city and the mandatory evacuation was lifted. It shouldn’t have been lifted,” said Gitz, who stated that a lot more could have been done to suppress the fire leading up to the mass evacuation.

“A day passed and from what I’m told the wind suppressed the fire. It looked like it stopped moving and the black plume of smoke got bigger. The size got me nervous. Then around 12 p.m. I noticed another plume in front of that one. The fire was coming north directly towards us. We called my parents and met up in Beacon Hill, where my brother lives,” Gitz recounted.

His brother was at work and most of his kids were at school. Gitz knew they had 10 to 15 minutes to get out of town before people would start to panic and even then there wasn’t a mandatory evacuation order. Gitz loaded his family at home into a vehicle and got them out safely, but had to go back and get his nieces and nephews out of school on the other side of town.

The only road out leading south was being consumed by the fire.

“I looked my sister-in-law in the eyes and told her I’d get the kids out, even though I knew the fire would have already consumed Beacon Hill and the highway, and I would get caught in the flames,” said Gitz, who took the back roads as fast as he could to get through the downtown core. He was able to pick up four of his nieces and nephews, but had one more to get further north.

At this point, traffic had begun to build up.

“After I got the children, I raced back south as fast as I could, but by the time I reached the bottom of Beacon Hill, I could see the flames racing up and down Abasand. Even now when I think about it, it still feels very unreal and incredibly horrific. The place where I had grown up and called home was burning.”

On the way back, Gitz and the kids were caught in a gridlock.

“I remember watching the flames take the road and spread all around us. I was slowly inching forward, crawling alongside the curb of the road and then the car stalled. I made a vow so the children got back home, so I would see my girlfriend again, so that I didn’t die, then I hit the ignition and the car turned over. I immediately bailed off the road and began to drive through the dirt center of a divided highway. I was off-road driving as fast as I could get us out. I was watching the fire spread all around us. I hit a drainage ditch. I thought I had definitely killed us then, but the SUV managed to catch enough ground and I was able to continue forward. I jumped on the opposite of the road with traffic coming towards us,” he recalled.

Gitz crossed over and sped south onto a paved pathway on top of a berm on the side of the road.

“Then the wind picked up again and even more flames and coals began to fly worse than before. A thought crept into my head. If I keep driving, will I get us stuck? Will I get us pinned in? If I did, we’d definitely be dead. So I turned around and headed north. My next goal was to get to Fort Mackay.” Fort Mackay is the reservation closest to the tar sand extraction.

“I got us there. I picked up my brother along the way. He was racing home on his motorbike and ditched it on the side of the road. We stayed the day in Mackay and planned to drive through Mac when night fell and the temperatures were cooler. They opened the road that night and we drove through a ruined city.”

“It’s hard to process. It doesn’t seem real at all. It probably won’t until I am there and can see the ash. I would go back to release the physical memories I carry and thank the land for taking care of me, but as of now, my home burned down, my mother and father’s home burned down, my brothers’ homes burned down. I figure it will take quite a while to repair and rebuild.”

Gitz and his family are now safe together in his mother’s homeland of Brocket, Alberta.

His family are one of many native families who not only lost their homes, their places of work, but also their traditional lands, once beautiful and lush with wildlife. At this point, the fire has engulfed more than 2,000 square kilometres of boreal forest, moving within 30 kilometres of the Saskatchewan boundary.

While most residents evacuating Fort McMurray headed south to Edmonton, many native families had evacuated to their homes in the surrounding communities of Fort Mackay, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray First Nation on Gregoire Lake, Chipewyan Prairie Creek First Nation in Janvier and the Métis hamlet of Conklin.

“All these communities opened their homes and resources to evacuees no, questions asked; just as our ancestors did when the settlers first came here and were struggling and dying off. It made me proud to be Blackfoot and Dene,” stated Gitz.

“My immediate worry is that resources will not be diverted to the communities that did exhaust their resources taking care of people. No public announcement was made with a specific dollar amount. That troubles me, because if they don’t announce it with any specifics they don’t have to honour it,” said Gitz.

These remote communities have relied on Fort McMurray as the nearest city to get food, clothing and supplies. Places like Fort Chipewyan are only accessible by plane and boat at this time of year and will be seeing more of a delay in relief efforts compared to those receiving help in Edmonton and Calgary. Friends in Six Nations are now rallying the community together to organize a massive yard sale on Monday, May 16 at Lone Wolf on highway 54 to raise money to directly help the First Nations communities affected by the fire.

After seeing everything he has worked hard and fought for in his lifetime burned down, Gitz has this to say; “I am reminded of a Tolkien quote; ‘you can fence yourselves in from the rest of the world, but you cannot fence the rest of the world out from coming in.’ Whatever foundation you have laid about the denial of climate change has burned up. The rest of the world has felt the implications in a manner of dramatic, tragic and horrific ways. We are seeing it and experiencing it now. The denial of climate change is costly. Not anticipating or accepting that the climate is changing and the localized environments have diversely changed is beyond criminal. If you think it’s not real, or if you deny that it has changed, get the —- off planet earth.”

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