On Sunday, May 1, 2016 a few dozen staff of the Wood Buffalo government — the municipality overseeing Fort McMurray and surrounding towns — descended into the belly of Firehall No. 5, a three-year-old building that had never had its emergency operations centre activated before. This was to be their war room, a windowless box covered wall-to-wall with whiteboards and maps, without a view of the terror that was growing outside. Parched summer weather and high winds had created the perfect feeding ground for the rapacious wildfire that was already too close for comfort. By Tuesday afternoon, just after it looked like those ominous black plumes had retreated, the winds shifted and the fire jumped the Athabasca River, breaching city limits.
Within 20 minutes, evacuation orders for Wood Buffalo’s 88,000 residents went from voluntary to mandatory. It was the biggest escape this country’s ever known. But not for the people in the war room, or for the few hundred firefighters and RCMP, or the private contractors aiding them. They all stayed behind to battle what fire chief Darby Allen started calling “The Beast.”