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Fort McMurray Was Shrouded By 'A Mountain Of Smoke:' Notley

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EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Rachel Notley plans to be in Fort McMurray on Wednesday to help residents turn the page on a devastating wildfire and says she will carry with her vivid memories of the early days of the disaster.

Scenes of families in trucks and cars reduced to a crawl as they tried to escape through curtains of flame below a sky raining embers.

The day she went to the region and the wildfire literally chased her around.

The tour of destroyed neighbourhoods reduced to grey expanses of soot.

alberta wildfire
A charred tree is seen in the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/Getty)

It was the small things that jumped out.

"I hadn't realized ... you go to a place where there was a house and what do you see on the ground? Nails. Piles and piles of nails,'' said Notley in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"Because that's what's left when everything burns to the ground. Just nails everywhere.''

It has been a month since a roaring wildfire raced through Fort McMurray and cut the city in two, forcing the entire population of more than 80,000 to flee.

Notley recalled the first day, May 3, was focused on getting people out and nothing more.

"That's what's left when everything burns to the ground. Just nails everywhere."

She said she was amazed to see families in cars inch their way past flames and not break down into mad panic.

"I remember talking to a friend of mine. I was just telling her about it and she started breaking into tears, imagining that she was there with a child trying to get out of town,'' said Notley.

"It's hard to imagine how frightening it must have been for these families to have your kids in the car and be driving down that road and to be told that you can't go any faster than 25 kilometres an hour when you're seeing flames coming at you.''

A day later, Notley flew to Fort McMurray to see what the province was up against and looked down on a city shrouded by "a mountain of smoke.''

She landed at the operations centre at the airport just as the fire forced staff there to head south to the hamlet of Anzac.

rachel notley
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks about her experience with the Fort McMurray wildfires. (Photo: Jason Franson)

Notley flew to Anzac under a blue sky, met and chatted with people, and suddenly everyone was on the run again.

"There was this great big wall of black (smoke) coming toward Anzac. That was the day where we had the biggest sense of the intensity, of the heat, and of the unpredictability of the fire.''

It was a disaster without a playbook: A fire that changed from hour to hour, the province needing to scramble in fire crews, get people out and find homes and money for evacuees — all while protecting the city and the nearby oilsands so critical to Alberta's economy.

For more than two weeks straight, Notley's attention was solely on the fire as she received briefings and then spoke to reporters at the operations centre in Edmonton.

"It's hard to imagine how frightening it must have been."

The plan, in short, was constant updates. All facts and no speculation. Those were the lessons learned in the fire that destroyed part of Slave Lake in 2011 and in extensive flooding that displaced thousands in southern Alberta in 2013.

Notley faced daily demands to update the number and location of homes lost and deliver a date to get evacuees back. Less was ultimately better than more, she said.

"We didn't want to put out information that we weren't 100 per cent sure of. Because if we started doing that and then had to change our position over and over and over again, people would stop listening to us. And then when we had important information to communicate they may not be listening.''

"I would think about it as a parent. I would talk about it with my kids."

At night, she said, the fire came home with her.

"It'd be hard not to (think about it), but I would think about it in a different context. I would think about it as a parent. I would talk about it with my kids.''

She said it's critical to be in Fort McMurray when the first evacuees return because the city will not be the same one they left.

"It's not like, 'OK, you're home. See ya. Bye bye,''' she said.

"We're still with them, and I think it's really important that they hear that from us.''

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