Sandra Lester considers Peace River, Alta., the most hospitable city she has ever been to. Still, after a month living there in a hotel room, she wants to return to Hay River, NWT, this weekend.
“I want to come home,” he told Breaking: before the weekend.
“I don’t even have a house to go to and I want to go home.”
Lester lost his home when a wildfire burned through the Paradise Gardens and Patterson Road areas, just south of Hay River, last month.
So when Hay River residents finally return this weekend after a month-long evacuation, Lester is among those in the area who have lost everything and don’t know exactly what they will return to.
His home was near the Patterson sawmill, a business founded south of Hay River in the 1960s by his late father and later taken over by his brother Daniel. Lester, 74, has lived in that area almost his entire life. She and her late husband built her own home on Patterson Road in 1983 and raised her three daughters there.
Everything is gone: the small group of houses on Patterson Road, including Lester’s, the sawmill, and the huge piles of firewood that were supposed to heat houses throughout the South Slave region this winter.
Still, Lester could have lost more. He barely escaped with his life.
Black as smoke
She was home that day, August 13, when the fire seemed to come almost out of nowhere. She had been told that she was still many miles away and she believed there was no real urgency as she packed some things to be ready to leave.
Lester recalled that he was still packing things into a suitcase when he looked out the window and saw fire coming down the nearby hill. He watched as the trees in his yard lit up like torches and his porch began to burn as he struggled to reach his truck. He had to cross the grass to escape because a tree had already fallen across the driveway.
“When I got to Patterson Road, it was pitch black and you couldn’t see. The smoke was awfully black,” he recalled.
His brother Daniel, who runs the sawmill, had previously told him that he would take his caravan down to the river if things got worse. The river has been unusually low this summer, so you can drive down to the river bed, hopefully far enough away from anything that might burn.
Lester decided to head to the river, but he had trouble finding his way through the smoke. He continued driving toward the ditch.
That’s when his brother’s lights appeared in his rearview mirror. She ended up following him to the riverbed, to the water’s edge. They sat there for the next few hours watching the fire roar along the banks and eventually jump the river in front of them.
“We could hear our fuel tanks exploding and our houses, you could hear explosions; we knew all was lost,” Lester said.
“We were very calm on the river, like we were sitting there and every once in a while he would say, ‘Do you think we’re going to die down here?’ And he said: ‘no, we’re not going to die. We’re fine.'”
‘You could hear it coming’
A resident of the Paradise Gardens area, Alex McMeekin, also lost everything in the fire that day and also had to desperately seek shelter by the river when flames suddenly swept through the area.
His wife had already left earlier that day to head south with their two young children, but McMeekin had stayed behind to move some equipment from his business to an open area where it would be safer from the fire. He thought he had time.
But like Lester, he was taken by surprise by the rapidly advancing fire.
“From what we had seen, it looked like it was moving toward the city and would potentially surround us,” he recalled.
“I went up the hill to assess and see where things were. And you could hear it coming… it was very close at that point. Probably with a click.”
He ran downstairs to unhook the last of the equipment he had been moving. He noticed heat on his back and turned to see the fire coming down the hill towards him.
“That thing was moving very fast,” he said.
He and another neighbor rushed to try to get to the road and escape, but trees had fallen across the road and the smoke was too thick to see much. They turned around, feeling trapped.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into. You know, a tree falls on you, you know, the way everything was burning, the winds were blowing,” he recalled.
“There’s a splitting moment when you certainly question your decisions, when you realize you can’t get out and you’re trapped. But you can’t let that thought wash over you at all.”
They drove to the safest place: next to the river. McMeekin thought they could go into the water if necessary.
Fortunately, they didn’t. The fire was at the top of the embankment and they were below. The wind seemed to blow the fire and embers up the valley and they waited for the air to clear enough so they could return to the hill.
“As we were driving up to our house, you could see a glow and then you could hear pops and some explosions. But when we got there, you know, we see, well, there’s our house, completely submerged,” he recalled.
“At that point, you know, you don’t really care… it is what it is.”
It was soon light enough for McMeekin and his neighbor to reach the road, stopping along the way to cut down some fallen trees.
You call ‘everywhere’
Orlanda Patterson tells a similar, heartbreaking story about how she narrowly escaped that day. Her family’s house on Patterson Road, which also disappeared, was directly across the street from her aunt Sandra Lester’s.
Patterson was home with her 20-year-old daughter that day while her husband fought fires in Fort Smith. She received a call from her husband telling her it was time to leave immediately.
She and her daughter hurried to load some things into their truck while they could. They didn’t have much time.
“My daughter runs into the house and she’s screaming. And I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ And she said, ‘The grass is on fire!'” Patterson recalled.
Moments later, the fire seemed to be “everywhere.” The lawn, garden and bushes were all on fire.
They ran towards the truck.
“I was ducking my head because there was burning debris swirling towards me. Like burning debris everywhere. It was scary. So I basically put my arm up and put my head down and ran through it as best I could,” Patterson. saying.
“My last call to my husband was, ‘Everything’s on fire, I think I lost the house.’ And that’s when the communication died. That was the last thing he heard.”
Thinking in the future
Patterson and her daughter eventually managed to drive to safety that day, as did McMeekin and Lester.
But Patterson says the ordeal has left her deeply shaken. She has noticed that she may now feel unsettled by unlikely things: the sound of rain, for example, may remind her of falling debris.
“It’s kind of crazy how it stalks you,” he said.
“Once I start thinking about everything, it’s very overwhelming. You know, where I’m going to live, where I’m going to stay, what’s going to happen.”
Still, he knows his family will rebuild on Patterson Road. As far as she knows, others will too.
“It gives us something to look forward to,” he said.
McMeekin is also looking to return and begin rebuilding his family home and greenhouse business in Paradise Gardens. The business already took a hit when the area flooded last year, so McMeekin feels like he’s been through some of this before.
“Well, the world keeps turning. I mean, we have work to do,” he said.
“Unfortunately, these things tend to get a little harder before they get better… it’s going to be a challenge for sure.”
Sandra Lester was scheduled to be on the highway north Sunday. She’s also not exactly sure what the next few weeks and months will look like for her, but she knows she will have a lot of support from her friends and family in Hay River.
“People literally came out of nowhere and said, ‘Sandra, I’m going to make you a new pair of beaded slippers.’ And, ‘Sandra, I’m going to give you a new quilt.’… It’s just amazing how many kind people there is,” he said.
“I’m going to survive this. I know it. I have no doubt that I’m going to survive. It’s just that I want everyone to survive and thrive just like I’m going to.”