LIKE ‘THE WALKING DEAD’: Williamstown native describes Fort McMurray chaos

CORNWALL, Ontario –Matt Flaro’s Fort McMurray home survived a massive wildfire last week – but only just barely.

The Williamstown native who moved out west a few years ago to pursue work on the oil patch found himself receiving conflicting reports about the status of his Draper Road home, before a neighbour who also happens to be a firefighter told him Tuesday it was still standing.

“It burned in front of my place,” said Flaro in an interview from Alberta where he has found refuge with the family of his girlfriend in Rocky Mountain House. “It burned half way up my yard. It was hot enough that it emptied my propane tank that was full.”

Real-time satellite images appear to show that the fire just missed his home – but he won’t know for sure how severe any damage is for several weeks as emergency officials won’t let anyone back to Fort McMurray until it is safe.

What he does know is that Canadians are, for the most part, a special breed when it comes to helping people in need.

“We really didn’t have anything. We had to go to Edmonton to get clothes for the kids. Every single person in every town, everywhere we go, is taking care of us. You’re getting deals on everything,” he said, adding his employers are paying workers at their regular rate despite the fact that no work is being done. “Bootleggers in Red Deer gave us 75 per cent off. Hotel rooms for free. People taking in strangers. The insurance company has been super supportive and our company gave us extra money to cope with everything.

“It’s amazing. I never ever thought we would see anything like this. I have friends that escaped the fire…and drove straight to Edmonton and grabbed like 30 jerry cans of fuel and water and snacks and went back to help people stranded on the highway.”

Flaro, a heavy equipment operator for Syncrude, said he was working nights and asleep when the call to evacuate Fort McMurray arrived May 3 in the mid-afternoon. By the time he got word that the city was being cleared Flaro took off north of the city in his pick-up truck on Highway 63 because the route south was blocked.

His girlfriend Christina Laboucane, stepson Brayden and daughter Austyn were camping with their mom south of the city at the time. Flaro said he drove to an oil worker camp and spent part of the night there, while his family huddled in the campsite dozens of kilometres away.

At about 1 a.m. he piled into his truck again and took off south to try and reach his family.

“I drove back through all the fires. The wind had died down and it had suppressed the fire a bit,” he said, but added during the day things were different. “It was just chaos. People were driving down into the ditch to try to get on the highway.

“There was just abandoned cars everywhere. Thousands of cars. It was like The Walking Dead. It was just mayhem.”

He finally arrived at the campsite and had a tearful reunion with his family. Since then he has moved in with his girlfriend’s stepfather, and desperately wants to return to work.

“To work for those companies is a godsend. Those guys are backing us 100 per cent,” he said.

But Flaro has other words for government officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom he feels has turned his back to Canadians in need.

“Trudeau is an idiot. He’s not even coming up here. It’s mass destruction up here. I can’t believe how scared and nervous people are,” said Flaro. “He should be here supporting us.”

Trudeau has been criticized for rebuffing international offers of support to help battle the out-of-control wildfires, and for not yet visiting the community.

The prime minister said later Tuesday he would visit Fort McMurray Friday.

“Trudeau has helped out more refugees than Canadians,” Flaro said. “Even the banks have all deferred payments. They’re backdating mortgages for up to four months.

“They (politicians) should be there supporting us 150 per cent.”

Fort McMurray’s hospital, city hall and strip malls were all left untouched, thanks to the work of firefighters who put up a 12-hour battle to douse flames. In all, 2,400 structures were destroyed, but another 25,000 buildings remain.

Including Flaro’s home.

“It’s unreal. I can’t believe the strangers and how everyone came together. I’ve never seen that kind of compassion.”

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