As the ash started to rain down on us, Nichole met my eyes and said: "the fire jumped the river."
In a panic, I scrambled inside to turn on the radio. The radio host confirmed our fears; the fire had doubled in size overnight, and the sudden shift of wind was bringing the hungry flames straight toward us. The host told us to prepare for evacuation.
My heart was pounding as I started to throw stuff into bags. At that point, I wasn't even aware of what I was packing. I stopped and asked Nichole if I was overreacting. She assured me that I wasn't; I had a baby to consider. I realized I had to call Rob. When I got in touch with him, he reiterated the importance of remaining calm and told me to keep listening to the radio. Nichole- reassured by my conversation with Rob- said she had to run back to her office and try to get home to pack.
After Nichole left my phone rang. It was my friend Robyn checking in on me. Through choked tears, I told her how scared I was, and my plan of fleeing to Rob's sister's house in Whitecourt, five hours away. In the background, the radio announced the official voluntary evacuation notice. Robyn asked me to go to her place in Timberlea-- a 15-minute drive away-- so we could keep each other calm. I expressed that I couldn't, I desperately needed to get out of town.
I hung up and put Serena in her car seat. I was in the bedroom closing up a suitcase full of clothing when Rob's brother, Trenton, came into my room. As soon as I saw his face, I knew my fear had been vindicated. He said "It's time to go! Now!"
We ran outside to throw our belongings in our respective trucks. I stopped momentarily to take a photo of the fire eating the horizon. It's almost as though I knew I'd need proof that this wasn't just a terrible nightmare. Luckily I was able to find both my cats, which often roam during the day. Though I didn't have time to find their carriers, I couldn't bear to leave them behind. Trenton took the cats in his truck.
I texted Rob to tell him we were leaving. He was already heading back to town. At some point, the radio announced the evacuation was now mandatory. I told Rob there was no way he'd make it in time, and we agreed he would wait for us at the end of Highway 881—the road out of town.
We left the house. By then my phone battery was nearly dead. I thought of Nichole and hoped she too had left rather than trying to get back to me. Trenton and I agreed that when we merged onto the highway, we would do so together, to avoid separation in the mass exodus of vehicles. The road was quickly becoming a gridlock. The nightmarish quality of the day hadn't abated; no part of this experience felt real.
We slowly made our way through the section of highway passing Beacon Hill. It looked like a Hollywood rendition of the apocalypse. Flames washed over houses as people fled for their lives on foot, screaming and jumping into strangers' cars. The sky was alight. As fate would have it, traffic came to a near standstill beside the local gas station.
I remember looking at the angel clip on my sun visor—a gift from my grandmother. Inscribed on the angel were the words "please protect us". It had been a long time since I prayed, the last occasion being years earlier while my grandfather was on his deathbed, but I prayed that day. I prayed the fire didn't touch that gas station. I prayed for my daughter's safety. I prayed that everyone made it out of our town alive because right then the notion seemed entirely impossible.
Trucks started veering out of line and driving in the ditches. One truck came barreling past through the ditch in the opposite direction. My stomach churned. What did they know that I didn't? What lay ahead of us? Should I turn and flee back towards town? I swallowed the panic. My phone was dead. Rob was waiting for me at the end of the road. Trenton was still right in front of me. If the fire was still coming for us, it was coming from the north. I took a breath and remained in the southbound line of traffic.
The campground beside me was on fire. The median beside me was on fire. The whole world around me was on fire. The temperature in the truck climbed to 40 degrees, with no sign of abating. I could feel the heat from the flames on my face. Hysteria reared its ugly head as I thought about the implications for my daughter in the backseat. Fire aside, this oppressive heat could be dangerous to an infant. The smoke coming through the vents was likely toxic. I turned on the air conditioning hoping it would combat the rising temperature.
Ahead of us, a huge cloud of smoke swallowed the road. Was it just smoke or had the fire taken the highway? We pressed forward blindly; there was nowhere else to go. Ahead of me, I could make out Trenton's taillights. They became my beacon.
Serena fell asleep. In retrospect, it was only natural. At the time I could only think the worst. I reached back and started to shake her car seat. She wasn't responding. Please wake up! My mind screamed. I tried to calm myself, but couldn't stem the flow of terrible thoughts. I wanted desperately to pull over, but I knew it was far too hazardous at this point. Our lives depended on getting off this highway.