By Treena Mielke
They could have been on a little holiday get-a-way, this family, so quick were their smiles and so easy their manner as they teased and joked with one another.
But, even though their smiles were brave and genuine and their hospitality gracious, it became clear as their story unfolded that they were not on a holiday and this was no little family get-a-way.
It began with a phone call, said Megan Wheaton, sitting cross-legged on a chesterfield in the family’s holiday trailer. She explained that she and her boyfriend, Jay Patterson, who are both heavy-duty equipment operators for Suncor had worked the night shift the night before the call to evacuate came in.
The phone call came from her ex-husband’s mother, saying they were picking up Calleigh, Megan’s six-year-old daughter from school and heading out of Fort McMurray. She said the city was being evacuated.
Her words spurred Megan to action.
“I woke Jay up and said we needed to start packing.”
Jay and his son, Kyle, who had joined the family in Fort McMurray just a few weeks earlier from New Brunswick where he played rugby for Team Canada, took off to fill up their truck with diesel.
Kyle, who had planned to go to the gym earlier, was already suspicious something was wrong as the gym was closed and traffic was crazy when he drove home.
The men took off to get fuel, but progress was slow.
“It was a five minute drive to the gas station and it took them four hours,” said Megan. “Everybody was leaving.”
Finally when they got close enough to the gas station, Kyle and his dad took turns running back and forth with a jerry can to fill the truck up with fuel.
While the men fueled up, Meridth and her nanny, Marivic Bas, began packing. The family’s first intention was to go south and Megan packed blankets and food, along with a full box of cherished photo albums.
As it turned out, the family, including their pets, a dog and two cats, along with Megan’s ex-husband and his family, including her daughter, decided to go south on Hwy. 63.
Driving out of Fort McMurray was surreal, said Megan.
“It was like a movie, there was a house on fire right beside us and behind us it was like the apocalypse. Mushroom clouds of black smoke and in front of us blue skies.
They arrived at Anzac, a hamlet located on Hwy. 881 along the east shore of Gregoire Lake, approximately 36 kilometers southeast of Fort McMurray six hours later.
It was normally a 35-minute drive.
Their stay turned to be short lived, however, because the next day Anzac was also evacuated.
And so the family moved on.
They drove to Palondon, White Sands resort where they stayed for two nights. While there they were joined by Megan’s daughter.
Finally, the decision was made to take advantage of an offer made through friends of the family, to use the free camping offered at Heaven RV Park in Gull Lake.
The family has been overwhelmed by the generosity shown to them, since arriving at the campsite.
As well as the owners of the campsite offering them a place to stay, they have been treated with great kindness and generosity wherever they’ve gone in the town of Rimbey, said Megan.
She said they had to take two of their pets to the pet clinic in Rimbey and both animals were treated, free of charge.
They were also invited out to a buffalo farm owned by Butch and Nicole Smith. The outing turned out to be fun and relaxing for the whole family.
Jay, who enjoys golfing and is hopeful both his golf clubs and his Harley motorcycle is intact when he gets home, said Mayor Rick Pankiw has offered to ensure he has some free golf at local clubs.
“We’ve been treated exceptionally well,” said Megan, “but it feels really odd for us to be on the other end of the donations. “We are used to giving, not taking. Fort McMurray is all about helping others.”
She noted she and her family were picking up garbage in their neighbourhood just two days before the fire.
The family is not sure when it will be safe to go home. Megan and her daughter have gone back to Newfoundland for a week or so. Jay and Kyle and Marivic and the pets will remain here.
Megan and Jay have been told they have jobs to go back to and they have found out their house is still standing, although they are not sure if there is smoke damage.
While Fort McMurray has been through the wringer in the last few months with declining oil prices and, finally, this devastating fire, the city will come back, she said.
The family plans to volunteer to help wherever they can when they finally are allowed back in.
“We will go back and we will fix that town.”