Families relieved to return after fire evacuations, others happy to have helped out
Melanie MacLean never thought she’d be so happy to see a crowded highway lined with people and fire trucks on her way home.
But after more than two weeks away, it was a welcome sight.
“I could barely see through the tears as I was trying to pull in, I was crying so hard,” MacLean, a native of Cormack on the west coast of Newfoundland, said during a telephone interview with The Telegram Wednesday from High Level, Alta., where she has lived for the past 10 years.
MacLean was crying tears of joy, as she and her two young children were among 4,000 evacuees from High Level and surrounding areas who were given the OK to return to their homes Monday after raging wildfires forced them out on May 20.
MacLean and her children had stayed 15 days in Slave Lake with friends while her husband, Mark MacLean, a firefighter, stayed in High Level to help battle the 275,000-hectare blaze.
“We couldn’t wait to see him,” she said.
As MacLean passed through the checkpoint along the highway into town, several people, including Mayor Crystal McAteer, town councillors, firefighters and other residents were there to welcome them back. There were also “Welcome Home” banners posted throughout the town.
“I could barely see through the tears as I was trying to pull in, I was crying so hard." — Melanie MacLean
But it was what she saw next that triggered her tears.
On her way through town, she spotted three fire trucks, one with its ladder upright with the Canadian flag, while members of the High Level Fire Department stood alongside it, including Mark.
“That’s when it hit me,” she said, fighting back tears and her voice quivering. “To finally see him again, it was so emotional.”
Mark, who had been focused on firefighting tactics and protocol for two weeks, was overjoyed to have his wife, their five-year-old son, William, and two-year-old daughter, Sarah, back with him.
“It was overwhelming to see them,” said Mark, who grew up in Gander. “I didn’t realize how much I really missed them until I saw them.”
The family had been camping at Twin Lakes on May 19 when they got word that residents would be evacuated and Mark would be called for duty.
Melanie said she packed essential supplies, along with a few sentimental items, to make the five-hour drive south to Slave Lake.
“It really made us think about what’s really important here,” said Melanie, who noted the wonderful support residents received from the people of Slave Lake, as well as those from their home province. “So, we just took things like baby books, special outfits and homemade quilts, gifts from grandparents.”
She didn’t like leaving Mark, but said she felt confident in his and his colleagues’ ability to keep the town safe. Mark was relieved to know they would be safely away from the fire.
“You really don’t have time to think about what you’re doing. You just do it,” Mark, 41, said when asked about the difficulty of battling such an unpredictable fire. “It was tough at times, but we had so much support. The town did a great job organizing the evacuation. It couldn’t have went smoother.”
Residents are still on alert and may be evacuated again, but Melanie and Mark will enjoy whatever time together they can.
Another Newfoundlander living in the area, Trudy Lanti, was also quick to help during the evacuation.
Lanti, whose husband and their three children have a farm 14 kilometres outside High Level, didn’t have to leave their home. Instead, they opened their doors and their land to 16 friends, including some other Newfoundlanders, who needed a place to stay for a week until the order was lifted.
While a few stayed in her house and in her neighbouring in-laws’ place, others drove their RVs and holiday trailers to stay on their land.
“It doesn’t take long to get to know people here,” said Lanti, 40, originally from St. Jones Within, near Clarenville. “We have lots of room, so we didn’t mind at all. … We were very lucky and didn’t have it rough, like many people having to stay in tents and in shelters.
“They’re friends and they needed a place to stay. That’s what you do. And you know, we actually had an amazing week.”
She said she, her husband, Kyle, and their children, ages 14, 10 and 8, were only too glad to help during such a frightening time.
Lanti’s daughter, Portia Giesbrecht, made headlines for the help she provided. The 14-year-old made a Welcome Home sign with her grandmother and installed it off the highway to welcome residents returning home. A photo of her and the sign was in Monday’s edition of The Edmonton Journal.
According to national reports, town officials are commending everyone, calling it a community effort.
“We live seven hours north of Edmonton and there are a lot of people ask why we live all the way up here. But you know, I would actually feel bad for my kids if I moved them out of this little northern town,” Lanti said.
“It’s a small town and everyone knows your business, but everybody has your back, too.”