Danna Philpott knew she had to get home to her family.
She sped off on her motorcycle towards Abasand on Tuesday after hearing the wildfire had crossed the river that divides the town.
She texted her husband, Brandon, who works about an hour away, and arranged to meet him at the house. Then she called her 21-year-old son and asked him to get his three sisters ready.
“Driving into town it was a sight,” said Danna, a journeyman electrician. “It was pretty horrific. I didn’t think I was going to get home. All you could see was this big cloud of smoke. I knew when it jumped the river that we were in trouble.”
Embers were falling all around and it was getting difficult to breathe, she said.
Once she made it home, Danna sent her three daughters — ages 15, 16, and 17 — in one car ahead before leaving with her son in the truck hauling the camper.
They could see the smoke and flames reaching the homes in the neighourbood, she said.
Meanwhile, the road leading to the subdivision was barricaded and her husband was stranded at the bottom of the hill.
All he could see was dark smoke and flames in the distance, said Brandon, who works in the mines.
He threw his motorcycle in the ditch and waited for his family.
“It was complete chaos,” said Brandon. “There were accidents. People were going nuts. It was like the apocalypse.”
There were a few tense moments when they didn’t know where the girls were, said Danna.
But the family reunited before deciding to take refuge for the night at Brandon’s worksite in an industrial park.
The next morning they headed to Red Deer and Blackfalds.
About 12 hours later, they arrived to the warm embraces of their family including Diana Hobbs who said she is relieved that her sister and her family are safe.
“We have accepted our losses,” said Brandon. “Our loss is our loss. We just want it to stop up there. Our town is being destroyed. If it doesn’t stop, there won’t be anything left up there.”
They know they are lucky because there are still people stranded on the side of the highway in Fort McMurray, said Brandon.
They said they are going to just take it day by day but it may be tough for their daughters especially the eldest, who is set to graduate from high school this year, said Danna.
There is also the uncertainty of not having a job for months as some companies are beginning to shut down, said Brandon.
Danna said it was amazing to see all the people on the side of the road with gas cans and water.
“You just never think it is going to be you,” said Danna. “Never, ever thought this would happen. And people are freaking awesome. It’s apprecated. To see the buses loaded up and bring supplies and to hear about people pulling together is what it’s all about. Alberta strong, man.”