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Kings County’s Darren Balsor escapes Fort McMurray - twice

Melvin and Wanda Skinner, originally from Harbour Round, Nfld., have been in Fort McMurray for 20 years. When they fled from the burning city they ended up in Edmonton with her brother but visited her cousin Doug Peel who is originally from Aylesford. Darren Balsor and his wife and two children, from Black Rock in King’s County, also ended up at the gated compound at Sharp Oilfield Services where Peel works. Wanda Skinner took this photo as the Skinners were escaping the inferno. Their daughter’s house was destroyed, but as of Saturday, their home was still standing.
Melvin and Wanda Skinner, originally from Harbour Round, Nfld., have been in Fort McMurray for 20 years. When they fled from the burning city they ended up in Edmonton with her brother but visited her cousin Doug Peel who is originally from Aylesford. Darren Balsor and his wife and two children, from Black Rock in King’s County, also ended up at the gated compound at Sharp Oilfield Services where Peel works. Wanda Skinner took this photo as the Skinners were escaping the inferno. Their daughter’s house was destroyed, but as of Saturday, their home was still standing.

EDMONTON - Darren Balsor spent 11 hours getting his family out of a burning Fort McMurray Tuesday. He made it 25 kilometres outside the city – and then he went back.

He drove back through the smoke and devastation Wednesday morning to haul out five guys who were stranded with no vehicle. But getting out the first time is something he’ll never forget.

“Driving out of the city man, we were driving right beside fire, right alongside the edge of the road – it was pretty terrifying I’ll tell you that,” Balsor said. “The smoke was terrible. Your eyes were just watering you know, even with the windows up. It was pretty hard to breathe that’s for sure.”

It’s a couple of days later and he’s just leaving Edmonton for BC. He has nowhere else to go. It hasn’t really sunk in yet.

“You could only see maybe a couple of truck lengths ahead at spots,” he said. “When we were getting out of there man, communities were just burning down. Everything was engulfed. The woods. It was pretty bad. It was pretty devastating.”

 

The Escape

Balsor, his wife and two teenage children lived in Timberlea on the north side of the Athabasca River.

“My wife had gas in her vehicle,” Balsor said. “I have a diesel truck. I went to fuel stations there and they were all out of diesel. Luckily my neighbor across the street – he’s got a diesel truck. It was full of fuel. He had a slip tank on the back and helped us out there and gave us some fuel to get out of town.”

They hooked on to their camper, threw some clothes in.

“Everything else we had to leave behind. We got our dogs, and kids, and the family’s safe. A lot of people got no where to stay. Luckily we got a chance to get to our camper and get that out of there.”

Except it took three hours getting off their street. About 500 metres.

“The city was so gridlocked and there was only the one way out,” Balsor explained. “And they were telling everybody to go north. The highway going north is a dead end. It stops not too far from Fort McMurray.”

 

Heading South

Balsor wasn’t going to go that way and get trapped.  

“After we finally got going, about five hours of getting out of our little community, we saw RCMP there and we stopped and asked them if we could go south and they said yes, the highway just opened.”

They headed towards Edmonton. An exodus of thousands of people and vehicles.

“We went outside of the city to a safe zone and we camped out there for the night, just because we were so long getting out of town.”

It was two o’clock in the morning and they’d gone 25 kilometres or so.

But he wasn’t done with Fort Mac yet. Wednesday morning, Balsor headed back to the city that just burned.

“It’s pretty devastating man. I went back through to town. I went and rescued a couple of my friends there on Wednesday morning.

The wife of one of the guys was with the Balsors.

“I drove back through town Wednesday morning after we got evacuated,” he said. “It wasn’t a real smart thing to do but I couldn’t see people stranded there and I went in and pulled out five guys. And when I drove back through, man it was so devastating, just from what happened over that one night. I went in and picked them up. They were stranded with no vehicles. I drove through the smoke, whatever I had to go through to go get them.”

He drove back through the smoke and devastation Wednesday morning to haul out five guys who were stranded with no vehicle. But getting out the first time is something he’ll never forget.

“Driving out of the city man, we were driving right beside fire, right alongside the edge of the road – it was pretty terrifying I’ll tell you that,” Balsor said. “The smoke was terrible. Your eyes were just watering you know, even with the windows up. It was pretty hard to breathe that’s for sure.”

It’s a couple of days later and he’s just leaving Edmonton for BC. He has nowhere else to go. It hasn’t really sunk in yet.

“You could only see maybe a couple of truck lengths ahead at spots,” he said. “When we were getting out of there man, communities were just burning down. Everything was engulfed. The woods. It was pretty bad. It was pretty devastating.”

 

The Escape

Balsor, his wife and two teenage children lived in Timberlea on the north side of the Athabasca River.

“My wife had gas in her vehicle,” Balsor said. “I have a diesel truck. I went to fuel stations there and they were all out of diesel. Luckily my neighbor across the street – he’s got a diesel truck. It was full of fuel. He had a slip tank on the back and helped us out there and gave us some fuel to get out of town.”

They hooked on to their camper, threw some clothes in.

“Everything else we had to leave behind. We got our dogs, and kids, and the family’s safe. A lot of people got no where to stay. Luckily we got a chance to get to our camper and get that out of there.”

Except it took three hours getting off their street. About 500 metres.

“The city was so gridlocked and there was only the one way out,” Balsor explained. “And they were telling everybody to go north. The highway going north is a dead end. It stops not too far from Fort McMurray.”

 

Heading South

Balsor wasn’t going to go that way and get trapped.  

“After we finally got going, about five hours of getting out of our little community, we saw RCMP there and we stopped and asked them if we could go south and they said yes, the highway just opened.”

They headed towards Edmonton. An exodus of thousands of people and vehicles.

“We went outside of the city to a safe zone and we camped out there for the night, just because we were so long getting out of town.”

It was two o’clock in the morning and they’d gone 25 kilometres or so.

But he wasn’t done with Fort Mac yet. Wednesday morning, Balsor headed back to the city that just burned.

“It’s pretty devastating man. I went back through to town. I went and rescued a couple of my friends there on Wednesday morning.

The wife of one of the guys was with the Balsors.

“I drove back through town Wednesday morning after we got evacuated,” he said. “It wasn’t a real smart thing to do but I couldn’t see people stranded there and I went in and pulled out five guys. And when I drove back through, man it was so devastating, just from what happened over that one night. I went in and picked them up. They were stranded with no vehicles. I drove through the smoke, whatever I had to go through to go get them.”

Darren Balsor and his family posed for this photo Saturday morning at Sharp Oilfield Services in Edmonton. The company, where Aylesford’s Doug Peel works, let the Balsors set of their trailer there after they escaped Fort McMurray Tuesday. Peel is sitting in the truck.

Doug Peel

Back on Highway 63 early Wednesday morning, Darren Balsor and his family headed south again.

“From where we stayed on Tuesday night to Edmonton is about a four-hour drive and it took us about 13 hours to get there. There was still so much traffic,” Balsor said.

At some point Doug Peel, originally from Aylesford, sent Balsor a message on Facebook asking him if he was heading to Edmonton. He told him he was and they finally arrived at about midnight.

“I was talking to Dougie and told him once we got to Edmonton we couldn’t find anywhere to stay,” said Balsor. “No hotels or anything. We had the camper but we couldn’t stay in parking lots.”

Peel drives truck for Sharp Oilfield Services where Balsor’s older brother, who’s back in Berwick now, used to work. While Balsor was camped in the safe zone, Peel was driving north through the smoke with a tractor trailor loaded with food for a Syncrude camp a half hour north of Fort McMurray. Two boys from home in the Valley. Both rescuing people.

“They had a gated impound yard and told us to go in there and hook up to the power and the water and stuff,” said Balsor. “We set the camper up which was awesome. I’m some grateful to Sharp Oilfield Services. When you’re losing everything and then you’ve got nowhere to go?”

Heading West

It’s about 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning. They just got some pictures with Doug Peel and his rig.

“We just left Edmonton here about half an hour ago. We’ve got a friend out on Vancouver Island that offered us a place to stay for now. That was one of our plans this summer was to go for a vacation out there,” said Balsor. “We’ve just got to get away from things and try to grasp what’s actually going on. It hasn’t really kicked in yet. You know what I mean? We’ve been so busy just trying to get things figured out – where we’re going and what we’re doing. Trying to figure out how we’re going to survive here for the next little while.”

As of Saturday the Balsors did have a home to go back to. It’s just going to be a long time before they can return to it.

“Our house actually, right now, is still standing. The little subdivision that we live in is still there,” he said. “Parts of Timberlea have been burned down, completely leveled, but our area is still safe and they’re working hard there right now protecting it.”

And he will go back if it’s still standing.

“That’s pretty much my home now. It has been for five years. Everything we’ve worked for for the last 30 years is there.”

 

Cleaning Up

Balsor won’t be moving back to his house anytime soon, but he works for the City of Fort McMurray. Right now they have 22 people working there.

“I told them I can’t come back right now. I’ve got to get my family looked after and get them settled in somewhere,” Balsor said. “Once I do that then I’m gonna go up. They’re gonna fly me up and put me in a place to stay and then I’ll start cleaning the mess up. Get the roads looked after so people can get in – once it’s safe of course.”

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