Barry’s Bay – When Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski and his wife, Vicky, left their home in Barry’s Bay on July 31st on a driving holiday to visit their daughter in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (NWT), little did they know they would be part of the ordered evacuation of the town within a week of their arrival.
Their holiday was eight years in the making and it was one the Yakabuskis were looking forward to with great excitement. Their daughter, Emily, husband, Tom Colucci, and their four children, Leopold (Leo) Adelaide (Addy), Gemma ,and Julia have lived there for eight years.
“We were taking several days to drive, because we’ve never had that experience,” he explained of their trip. Although Mrs. Yakabuski had visited on several occasions, Mr. Yakabuski’s busy schedule never allowed him to take an extended holiday.
“They’d been there for eight years, and shamefully, I’d never gone to visit,” he said “I’d never been really able to take more than a week at one time from this job to get away.”
They decided they’d take the time to visit on a longer holiday and planned to be gone a little over three weeks.
“We wanted to drive up from Banff to Jasper, up through the Rockies, which was absolutely spectacular. Our drive was essentially uneventful, but shortly after we got there, it was becoming increasingly a concern with regards to smoke.
“And the smoke was there because of the approaching fires coming up through Wood Buffalo National Park,” he added. “That kind of progressed for the week we were there before we were evacuated.”
Mr. Yakabuski said the authorities were providing daily updates, and they knew there could be some challenges arise as the fire drew nearer to the town of approximately 2,500.
He noted the situation was heightened by the fact their eldest son, Zachary Mundt and his wife, Stephanie, and their two children. May and Wallace of Deacon, had planned to join the family in Fort Smith.
“They flew to Yellowknife because they were going to drive home, and Vicky and I were going to fly home,” he explained. “It made for the perfect plan. You get to enjoy the spectacular drive once, but you don’t have to do it twice in the short period of time.”
Mr. Colucci and their eldest son, Leo, went to Yellowknife to pick up the Mundts, and the group spent a few days fishing on Great Slave Lake.
“By the time they were ready to come to Fort Smith, the highway was now closed. They did get through to Fort McMurray, but that is further down.”
Meanwhile, back in Fort Smith and with the situation getting worse, the Yakabuskis are trying to determine what they should do as an evacuation alert had been issued.
“And Emily is an essential worker who works for the municipality of Fort Smith, in the town of Fort Smith. She wasn’t going anywhere and she hasn’t yet. She’s never left the town; she’s been there through the whole thing.
“We thought we might wait it out a little longer but they actually came to the door and said we had half-an-hour to get to the community centre where they’d take us to the airport and fly us out,” he remarked.
The evacuation order was issued on August 12 and Mr. Yakabsuki said the day before they were evacuated was probably the worst day as it had moved approximately 40 kilometres in one day.
“The temperature and the wind are your biggest enemies and it was going all the wrong directions that day. And the day before we were evacuated, it was like the Biblical depiction of the death of Christ.
“Right at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, as it says in the Bible, it got so dark because of the obstruction of the smoke blocking out the sun, that you had to have the lights on in the house in order to be able to see,” he explained. “That’s how thick and bad the smoke was.”
It lessened later in the day and the following morning when they were told they had to leave and would not be able to drive out because the only highway was closed, the smoke had decreased significantly so they could fly out. They were accompanied by Emily’s other three children.
Mr. Yakabuski said at that point the fire was about four kilometres from Fort Smith and fortunately, the wind had shifted away from the town. After they left, fire crews were able to undertake some defensive measures to protect the town should the wind change back in the direction of the community.
“Yesterday and today were critical days because it’s 31 degrees in Fort Smith today,” he told The Leader last Wednesday. “Fire needs three things: heat, fuel and oxygen, and it’s certainly got fuel and on days like today, it certainly has heat, and, of course, the oxygen is there.”
He said crews bulldozed areas and cut down wooded areas to remove some of the fuel, hoping it would have the desired effect.
He said it has been such a challenge to fight the fires as resources across the country have been taxed to the limit this year with fires burning in most provinces.
“The reality is, we’re fighting fire across the country. If this was a time when there were only fires in the Northwest Territories, clearly the support from every other province or jurisdiction would be even greater.”
Mr. Yakabuski believes many townspeople evacuated before the order was issued, especially those who had places to go, be it with relatives or friends. He estimated almost all of the population, other than those essential workers, did leave.
As a parent, he said he obviously had reservations about leaving his daughter behind in Fort Smith.
“But there are people who need to be left behind to ensure that those that aren’t in a position to organize their way out are able to get out. That’s the job of someone in her capacity and also the first responders, the people that operate the airport, all those kinds of folks. They weren’t able to go.
“The reality is, it’s a lot easier to protect a small number of people, than it is to protect the entire town, including the people that may have physical disabilities or otherwise,” he added. “The last thing you need if the fire gets there is to be worrying about the people as opposed to focusing on the fire and the infrastructure and property.”
During the evacuation flight, he said he was unable to see the devastation the fire had caused because of the smoke and clouds.
Mr. Yakabuski said it was blessing they were evacuated to Fort McMurray, explaining originally they were scheduled to go to Hay River. Some of the earlier evcauees were taken there and had to be re-evacuated when the order was issued to leave that town.
“Then Hay River got evacuated, so we would have been evacuated twice,” he said.
They spent almost a week in Fort McMurray, saying he could not believe how extremely well all the evacuees were treated.
“Probably because Fort McMurray had been through that mess in 2016 when they lost half the city practically. It was a great place to be evacuated to.”
When they arrived in Fort McMurray, there were buses waiting to take them to the hotel that had been assigned to them.
“A good percentage of people in that hotel would have been Fort Smith evacuees,” he remarked. “They certainly created space for evacuees at that hotel.
“And the accommodations were completely covered,” he added.
He believes the people involved with the process were all employees or volunteers of the town.
As an MPP in Ontario, he said it’s great to see these services exist to assist people in the time of need.
“I was, quite frankly, shocked in a good way, at how efficient, effective and accommodating the entire situation was.”
He admitted that situation may have been different a few days later when Yellowknife was evacuated, as then there were possibly over 20,000 heading to the same evacuation centres, which would have made it much more challenging to access accommodations.
Reunited In Fort McMurray
A day after they arrived there, Mr. Colucci arrived with his son, and the Mundt family, so they were reunited in Fort McMurray.
“We actually had a great visit in Fort McMurray where there’s lots to do,” he noted.
Mr. Colucci and his four children were still in Fort McMurray as of last Wednesday.
“Nobody will be going back to Fort Smith until they can categorically say that it’s safe to do so. And weather is going to play a big part in it.”
A week after their evacuation, the Yakabuskis were able to schedule a flight from Fort McMurray to Toronto.
“We didn’t get to see as much of Emily and Tom as we’d like to because of the circumstances, and even on the days we were there, Emily was quite busy herself because things were going in the wrong direction. But Vicky and I enjoyed the company of three of the children while we were there. We couldn’t go to all of the places we wanted to because of restrictions and the smoke.”
Since their holiday was interrupted they might make another trip north sooner rather than later.
“Emily said you’ll probably never come again and I said well maybe we have to come again to experience it the way we hoped it would be.”