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Two male police officers at the site of a burned down house

Battling the Fort McMurray blaze, bringing residents to safety

Two members sift through the wreckage of a house on May 5. Credit: Alberta RCMP

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More than 300 RCMP members from across the country joined forces to protect Fort McMurray residents from the raging Alberta forest fire, nicknamed 'The Beast' by first responders. The RCMP, along with municipal law enforcement, evacuated residents, controlled traffic and secured the city while more than 2,000 firefighters fought to control the blaze. Here are just a handful of stories from members who put their lives at risk to keep Fort McMurray safe.

On the morning of May 3, the massive wildfire burning southwest of Fort McMurray, Alta. seemed to be contained. Parents sent their kids to school and went off to work, unaware of what the next 24 hours would bring.

"It was a normal morning here, we all thought the fire was under control," says Jodi Hinkson, an administrative assistant at Wood Buffalo Detachment, which serves Fort McMurray. "But when we got back from lunch, we just saw this giant white plume of smoke. It went from white to black and filled the whole sky."

Hinkson went back to work, but with three kids in schools across town, she couldn't shake the uneasy feeling. After a quick bathroom break, she ran into Insp. Lorna Dicks, the acting detachment commander.

"She told me to get ready to go," says Hinkson. "The panic on her face told me that I needed to go get my kids."

State of evacuation

That same morning, Cst. Kyle Green was spending his day off in Fort McMurray with his younger brother, who was visiting from out of town.

But Green's vacation came to an abrupt end when he got a call ordering him — and every available RCMP officer in the city — to report for duty. The wildfire had gotten out of control and the city was evacuating.

"Everywhere was bumper to bumper traffic. I couldn't drive, so I ran to work," says Green, who sprinted two kilometres to the detachment. "I went and got a uniform on — it was pretty swamped, so I found a car and picked up jobs where I could."

A normal watch at the detachment usually has about 24 members. On May 3, Fort McMurray's full force of more than 135 RCMP officers was called out on duty. As the police of jurisdiction, the RCMP took the lead in protecting residents while fire crews battled the flames, ensuring the evacuation happened in a safe, orderly way.

"Members were running all over town wherever needed," says Dicks, the acting detachment commander that day. "They were going door-to-door in neighbourhoods, they were evacuating schools and they were clearing patients out of the hospital while the fire department sprayed water to prevent it from burning. It was life or death at many points throughout that day for members."

A few hours later, Dicks made the decision to evacuate the main Wood Buffalo detachment building. The fire was burning in neighborhoods surrounding the detachment and advancing quickly, so officers fled to the city's more southern backup location.

"Everyone helped out, from the most junior constable to the senior members," says detachment commander Supt. Rob McCloy, who was overseas on leave during the first days of the emergency. "Some members were literally in the line of fire, they were standing there directing traffic with smoke and flames licking at them."

Fleeing for their lives

Cst. Chris Russell was one of those officers in one of the most fiery areas of Fort McMurray — Beacon Hill. Russell was on duty when the fire was declared out of control.

"I was sitting at my desk finishing a report and I heard the radio chatter get very frantic," he says. "It became 'all hands on deck' very quickly."

With manpower needed in Beacon Hill, Russell rushed over in a police car to help clear the neighbourhood.

"We knocked on doors and kicked them down if we had to," says Russell. "People had left TVs on and laundry running. Then there came a point where if we didn't get out ourselves, we would've been trapped. As we left, the orange smoke became so thick that we couldn't see five feet in front of us. We were driving over embers."

As the convoy of officers tried to leave Beacon Hill, the police radio crackled and informed them that the main road out of the neighbourhood was compromised. Fire had crossed the street and made it impassible. Any cars that were left had to find another way to leave — off-road.

Russell carefully drove his cruiser over the charred grass and spotted an elderly couple stranded in a car at the bottom of a ditch. After manoeuvring his own car down and out of the trench, he went back to help the couple.

"I took the woman by the arm and she said, 'I'm scared,' and I said, 'Me too.' "

Russell guided the couple back to his police car and drove them through the thick black smoke to a safer area. He flagged down a woman who had space in her car for the couple. After some careful rearranging, and with Russell holding the woman's squirming cat, the three residents and their furry companion drove south to the evacuation point.

"I didn't catch her name, but she was one of the civilians I have to credit for helping out," says Russell. "Everyone was doing their best to help."

With a job still to do, Russell stopped at an intersection on the clogged Highway 63 — the only way out of Fort McMurray. With a traffic bottleneck to control, he started directing cars. As Russell struggled to regulate four lanes of traffic by himself, two civilians took it upon themselves to help Russell out.

"One man pulled over in a suit, fancy shoes and a nice white shirt — he looked like an executive — and was doing his best to be a traffic controller with me that day," says Russell. "They were standing in the middle of the highway in rush hour traffic to help me and protect me and try to make things smoother for the evacuation. It was incredible."

Co-worker saves the day

Following the advice of Insp. Lorna Dicks, Hinkson left the office to pick up her children. That's when she received a phone call from one of her colleagues, Cst. Tim Hogg.

"As soon as I saw his name come up, I knew what I had to do," says Hinkson. Hogg's wife, Cst. Candice Djukic, was out of town on training, and Hogg himself was working the fire evacuation. "I asked, 'Do you need me to get your daughter Avery?' and he said 'yes.' "

Hinkson tracked down Avery at a local daycare, stopped at the couple's house to pick up the girl's car seat, asthma medication and some family photos, and took Avery in as one of her own children.

Hinkson then rushed back to her own house to meet her husband and three kids. In a matter of minutes, they had packed their van and joined the line of evacuating vehicles. Unable to contact Hogg and Djukic because of the clogged phone lines, Hinkson eventually made the decision to take Avery out of the city.

"I have three kids with asthma, and Avery has asthma, so I was like, 'We need to go,' " says Hinkson. "It was what everyone did that day: everyone picked up whoever, and took whoever, wherever."

"Jodi's our hero, and we'll always be grateful for her selfless actions during a chaotic and terrifying time," says Djukic. "She truly went above and beyond her duties in this crisis."

Out of the heat

Many officers, like Green and Russell, worked for several days straight with little sleep, food or water. Shortly after the detachment's main building was evacuated, the fast-approaching fire forced Dicks to clear the second one.

By May 4 — the day after the fire had enveloped many parts of the city — the RCMP, municipal law enforcement officers, sheriffs and firefighters had successfully evacuated residents. That evening, many RCMP members gathered in the hamlet of Anzac, 50 kilometres to the south, where a temporary detachment had been established.

"We showed up as the sun was setting, and that was probably the most emotional moment," says Green. "Behind us, you could see Fort McMurray, and the whole thing was on fire. There was just this big orange glow off in the distance."

That night, Green and his fiancée, another RCMP member, found out their house had been destroyed in the fire.

"I've been through a lot of stressful events and it's important to understand it changes you, you're going to see things differently," says Green. "That's what happened here. We definitely came out stronger."

On May 7, all RCMP officers from the Wood Buffalo Detachment were told to stand down, and given two weeks off. Backup from other detachments had arrived, relieving the pressure on local members.

"Despite the risks they faced, the team did incredible work helping to get 88,000 people out in a matter of hours with no direct deaths…it brings tears to my eyes," says Dicks. "The response from the public has been amazing — neighbours you've never talked to coming over and shaking your hand and offering to buy you coffee."

After a couple weeks of rest, McCloy said his detachment was chomping at the bit to get back to their city. By the first week of June, the RCMP and most residents had returned, and things were getting back to normal.

"Morale is high and has remained high — the fire brought the whole detachment together," says McCloy. "We stepped up to the plate, and when we asked for help from the rest of the force, they stepped up to the plate as well. I can't think of any other organization that can hit the ground running like it's just another day — and we showed we do it well."

Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 4, 2016).

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