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Northern Ontario man recalls frightening fight for Fort McMurray

Daniel Waymouth is a Fort Mac firefighter originally from Sault Ste. Marie

There is no shortage of shocking photos, videos and stories to tell in the wake of the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Daniel Waymouth, a Fort McMurray firefighter and Sault native, shared his story with SooToday.com on May 11 after he spent an exhausting week battling the horrific blaze with his firefighting comrades.

Waymouth, 34, became a professional firefighter in Alberta in 2008 and has worked with the Fort McMurray Fire Department since 2010.

"I've never experienced anything like it in my life," said Waymouth, speaking to SooToday.com from Jasper, Alberta, where he is currently resting with his girlfriend Marion Ruel and Boston, the couple's Rottweiler, after the fiery ordeal.

"It's nice to get some mountain air after a week of that," Waymouth said, the relief in his voice clearly discernible.

The massive wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray on May 1.

An evacuation order for the entire community was issued May 3. Some 80,000 people were evacuated.

"I didn't really feel anything emotionally (at first), you get tunnel vision and adrenalin, I didn't really get introspective … there was a lot of work to do and that's really what we were focused on," Waymouth said.

The wildfire seemed to burn up time, as well as forests and urban property. 

"Day turned into night and back into day again, and I was on the same fire scene, on the same fight … there were 2,400 structures lost in three days, so you can imagine a fire department with roughly 140 guys, we were overwhelmed," Waymouth said.

"We worked until exhaustion … guys were laying out on peoples' lawns or sleeping in the backs of fire trucks for an hour, then went back at it."

"That was the norm for everyone, they worked until they couldn't stand, they caught an hour or two of sleep then they went back out for another 16 or 20 hours until they couldn't stand again, that was the rotation for the first two and a half days." 

Reinforcements came from other fire services by land and air, from within and outside Alberta, and now the worst appears to be over, but at one point it became clear Waymouth and his comrades would have to withdraw to a place of relative safety.  

"You could see this wall of fire approaching with every passing minute," Waymouth said.

"There was nothing stopping it, all the trees, all the grass, and it would catch some pines and there would be a 140-foot candle (sparks and burning embers) off the pines and it would keep marching toward us."

"The fire almost had a mind of its own, it was tactical in its approach. This was the spookiest moment of my career … we had to look for a way of egress (withdrawal).

"When we turned around we saw about 100 cars bumper to bumper trying to exit that same road and we started to get flanked … the fire had wrapped behind us and it was blowing through a cemetery, of all things.

"There was one way in, one way out, you're either going north or south, no east or west exits in Fort McMurray … there was a backup of cars that wasn't allowing people to move, they looked behind them and saw 200-foot flames swallowing up homes in their neighbourhoods."

Fortunately, Waymouth and his fellow firefighters made their way out.

So did his girlfriend Marion Ruel, and Boston, their Rottweiler. She was evacuated with the rest of the Fort McMurray populace May 3 with an emergency kit and the couples' Toyota.

Waymouth was also able to contact his parents in the Sault as the fire raged.  His house in Fort McMurray still stands, while other neighbourhoods were consumed by flames.

He expressed appreciation for firefighters from other communities, such as Edmonton, Calgary, Strathcona, Red Deer and others, who came to help fight the wildfires, as well as gratitude for all the humanitarian aid that has been sent to Fort McMurray.

"Without those guys it would have been more difficult to cope with," Waymouth said.

The worst of the wildfire seems to be over, though it will be a couple of weeks before people can start returning to Fort McMurray.

The Fort McMurray wildfire area is approximately 229,000 hectares in size, and is still 25 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border.

It will take weeks for the wildfire to be contained and extinguished.

Waymouth said, in the aftermath, there are rows of vehicles in the middle of Fort McMurray's roads with the doors swung open, presumably after drivers and passengers fled on foot.

"There are abandoned vehicles all over town, on the medians, in the bush, in the ditches."

Still, Fort McMurray's citizenry handled the frightening ordeal remarkably well.

"There were definitely some signs of panic, but the citizens kept their poise pretty well, and some people are saying some of it can be attributed to the WHMIS and First Aid training that goes on because a large part of the populace works in an industrial setting where that training is mandatory … it helped keep people calm," Waymouth said.

"We're taking this as a victory, no emergency personnel were killed, (but) there was an unfortunate incident involving a car accident in the evacuation where two people were killed. Nobody except for the families of those two people are mourning, which is incredible…there are lots of hugs and high fives among the firefighters.

"Man, I'm so proud to be a part of this group."

There is an enormous amount of cleanup work to do in Fort McMurray, Waymouth said.

There are piles of rubble and ash (where entire neighbourhoods once stood) which have to be cleared, gas lines that need to be restarted, ruptured water lines that have to be repaired, and the list goes on.

The Red Cross has launched a relief effort for Fort McMurray, which includes $60 million in donations.

SooToday.com and Algoma's Water Tower Inn have teamed up to raise money for Red Cross efforts in Fort McMurray.

As of Wednesday, the campaign had raised $5,590, which will be matched by donations from local businesses before being donated to the Red Cross.

If you would like to donate to this effort, click here