6 May 2016

Kiwi in Fort McMurray: 'The city's gone'

5:49 pm on 6 May 2016

A New Zealander who fled the ravaging Alberta fire with his young family says he can't imagine there will be anything for them to go back to. He recounts the harrowing experience his family endured.

New Zealand man Craig Rowland and his wife and small children are in Calgary waiting to hear if their home has burnt to the ground after fleeing a wildfire in Alberta.

New Zealand man Craig Rowland with his family after fleeing the wildfires. Photo: SUPPLIED

New Zealand man Craig Rowland, his wife and small children are in Calgary waiting to hear if their home has burnt to the ground after fleeing along with 60,000 others.

The entire population of the city of Fort McMurray was evacuated from their homes. Thousands that didn't make it out in time are being airlifted to safety.

The wildfire has raged for five days and is now heading south. It has forced a total of 88,000 people to be evacuated, and destroyed 1600 buildings, with another 19,000 potentially under threat.

The former Oamaru man has lived in the city for the past five years, along with his wife and his two sons aged 11 months, and 20 months.

Mr Rowland works for an oil and gas exploration company, and he told Afternoons fires were common in the area, and he got used to seeing and smelling smoke.

"The first responders always sort it out, they have excellent air tankers and chopper pilots ... it's never been an issue."

A dashcam video of residents evacuating the Canadian city of Fort McMurray Fire  during a massive forest fire.

A dashcam video of residents evacuating the Canadian city of Fort McMurray Fire during a massive forest fire. Photo: SCEENSHOT/YouTube

A fire an hour north of Fort McMurray five years ago was about five times the size of the current blaze, and even that did not spook the locals too much, he said.

"And the same for this one too. It wasn't really something we were concerned about, honestly."

A dashcam video of residents evacuating the Canadian city of Fort McMurray Fire  during a massive forest fire.

A dashcam video of residents evacuating the Canadian city of Fort McMurray Fire during a massive forest fire. Photo: SCEENSHOT/YouTube

There were five small forest fires at the end of last week within a kilometre of his house, but they were put out quickly.

He knew the current fire had started when he returned home on Tuesday morning from working a night shift, but he went to bed not too concerned. At 1pm he was woken by his wife who told him she could not see the sun outside.

"I was like jeez, this isn't how it should be."

Mr Rowland jumped in his truck and headed out to get some gas but the five minute journey took an hour with people clogging the roads trying to get out of town.

When he got to the petrol station is was closed - the pumps were down.

With half a tank of gas in his car, he said he had to make a choice. The nearest town to the south is about 250 km away, and he had the gas to get there. The road to the north ended after about 100 km at the ominously named Bridge to Nowhere.

He drove home and he and his wife began packing bags when alarms went off signalling the mandatory evacuation of the whole town.

"As we were putting the bags in the truck we look over and you could see the top of the flames breaching the tops of the houses probably about 10 streets away, that's how close it was.

"It had gone from not being really too bad to seeing flames within 30 minutes - honestly it was that quick."

Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, home to about 88,000 people, was completely evacuated.

Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, home to about 88,000 people, was completely evacuated. Photo: Google Maps

Mr Rowland said the scene was surreal. Ash was falling out of the sky, it was pitch black, flames were coming, and it was all happening in silence.

"Everyone just sort of sat there for like 30 seconds on the street almost - that's what it seemed like - just looking at the flames.

"And then it's boom, switch into an adrenaline panic mode, preservation mode. I ran back in the house and got the two boys, got them in the truck, told my wife 'grab the dog'. Shut the door, lock it ... grab our passports and let's go. And that was the last time I set foot in my house.

"It could be the last time I set foot in my house."

The family ended up driving north to where he worked, and they were flown to safety in Calgary where they are staying with friends.

"I don't even know if we will go back, its devastating man.

"And even if we do go back, what are we going back to? If we're lucky my house stands. Our subdivision's probably one of only two that are going to survive and there is nothing else.

"The city's gone, what do we go back to?" Mr Rowland said.

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