It was a cold December day with temperatures in the -40°C range as a truckload of 1,500 bales of hay pulled into the Clearwater Horse Club in Fort McMurray, Alberta. While fingers and faces might have felt the bite of winter as the hay was unloaded, recipients from the town’s tiny but active equine community were warmed by what the shipment meant – they hadn’t been forgotten.

Many Fort McMurray horse owners are still reeling from the massive forest fire that ravaged the remote town last spring. Dubbed “The Beast,” the fire began southwest of Fort McMurray on Sunday May 1, 2016, becoming so fierce two days later, a mandatory evacuation was called for the entire town.

Horse owners scrambled to find safe passage for themselves and their animals. Some, who couldn’t get their horses out, had to let them loose. Amazingly, all horses survived.

And while the Clearwater Horse Club itself was practically razed (see page 62 for more), on the weekend of December 16, 2016, the facility was bustling as the hay shipment, organized by the Alberta Equestrian Federation (AEF) and made possible by donations from across Canada and the globe, was distributed.

Cash, Not Stuff

During the fire, the AEF quickly jumped in to help the Fort McMurray equine community. It encouraged horse owners to register so they could determine where horses had been relocated and became a conduit for donations.

One of many important lessons the AEF learned during the June 2013 floods in southern Alberta, was that donations of horse equipment were logistically difficult to manage. “We thought that was a good idea until we had all this stuff that we now had to distribute,” said president Les Oakes. “This time around, we felt that if people wanted to make donations, the best donation was cash.”

With the funds, the AEF bought $33,000 in gift cards from Greenhawk for the nearly 120 Fort McMurray horse owners who had registered. Donations continued to arrive through fall. Then, thanks to a financial gift from the Spruce Meadows Leg Up Foundation, the new charitable arm of Calgary’s internationally renowned equestrian venue, the hay purchase was made possible.

High Hay Prices

Fort McMurray’s remoteness, about 435 kilometres north of Edmonton, means hay shipments are usually more expensive than in other parts of the province. Plus, low yields in recent years have hiked prices further, with a 20-kilogram square bale costing between $10 and $14.

With thousands of dollars of hay stores lost in the fire, what better winter gift to receive? Supplied by Transfeeder, an international forage grower based out of Olds, Alberta, the hay is screened, processed, washed, compressed and shrink-wrapped. Bales are small and delivered on pallets.

“I didn’t know what facilities people had for storage. And these things take up less space and are easier to store,” Les explained. “We basically gave everyone 12 bales of hay, which isn’t a tonne, but it’s going to feed one horse for almost a month. It’s going to help.”

The horse community appreciates the support. “They’ve gone above and beyond for the equine owners in Fort McMurray. They’ve been amazing,” said Charity Wiley, Clearwater’s publicity director. “It really was a pleasant surprise when they said, ‘Hey, we’re sending up 1,500 compressed bales and it will be there in two weeks.’ It’s a huge, huge help. And the hay is beautiful.”

Les, who was on hand for the weekend, said he was amazed by the spirit of the people. “Everybody knew somebody who had a story that was worse than theirs. They were just thankful their family and their horse was safe. That was the thing that struck me the most: in light of the fact these people went through a tremendous tragedy, they were just thankful for the final outcome being good. Their stories were heart-wrenching … but it wasn’t complaining, it was just telling the facts.”

Megan Bastien, an owner of five horses, (see page 61 for Megan’s own harrowing experience) explained the stoicism. “It was a really hard thing for a lot of Fort Mac folks, whether they have horses or not. Everyone thought, ‘Someone else needs it more than I do.’ The thing is, it was an expensive year, it was a trying year, and taking help doesn’t mean you’re a person who doesn’t take care of you and yours,” she said.

“People who come up to Fort McMurray come up because they want to get ahead, be independent and financially be really stable in this world and so accepting charity seems even more difficult. But I think it’s more about feeling the support. There’s an emotional or friendship side, a community side to it.”

Fort McMurray Fire Facts

  • It’s still smouldering in deep layers of the ground
  • At its peak, it reached temperatures of 1,000°C
  • 88,000 residents were evacuated
  • 2,400 structures burned, about 10 per cent of the town
  • It was about 600,000 hectares in size – larger than P.E.I.
  • It’s the nation’s costliest insured natural disaster with nearly $4 billion in claims, per the Insurance Bureau of Canada.The total financial, physical and social impact could reach $9 billion, suggests a recent report.

Let Them Go

Megan Bastien’s father had only recently passed away when she brought home his “buddies” from Saskatchewan. The three untrained horses – Duke, Summer and Molly – joined her own two Tennessee Walkers on Tower Road in Fort McMurray, where the province rents modest plots to horse enthusiasts.

About 10 days later, Megan, 33, set off to B.C. to decompress after her father’s death, leaving her non-horsey boyfriend Shane Farris to simply fill the water tank. Neither expected he would hold the fate of five horses, three of which were barely halter-broke, in his hands as the fire quickly spread on Tuesday.

As the blaze bore down, Shane easily loaded the Tennessee Walkers on Megan’s two-horse trailer. But, a friend, who was to haul Megan’s dad’s horses in a neighbour’s stock trailer, couldn’t navigate her pickup through snarled traffic as townspeople frantically sought escape.

Megan made a grim decision. “I had to tell Shane to let them go. It was really hard,” said Megan, emotion stirring in her voice. “The fire was so close. It was so dangerous. He was on a one-way road with no infrastructure. There’s no way the firefighters would come to save him.”

Shane then essentially off-roaded Megan’s Tennessee Walkers through town to safety. An hour and half later, the fire crossed Tower Road.

Megan, on a mission to save her father’s horses, desperately drove all night. She checked on her Tennessee Walkers, who were, by this time, at her friend Nadia Crewe’s Red Spruce Hollow Equestrian, an hour outside Edmonton. Then she and Nadia trekked up to Fort McMurray with a six-horse trailer. “I didn’t know if we’d get past a security checkpoint, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

The pair finagled their way into town. When they got to Tower Road, they found the trio covered in ash and soot, with minor burns on their backs. Duke had torn part of his lip off. But they “loaded like they’d done it their whole life,” said Megan, who rescued more horses and animals as they left.

Today, Megan’s herd of five lives happily on her rented land, which amazingly sustained very little damage. Although dealing with her father’s death and the fire at the same time was trying, Megan said she was no different than anyone else. “There were other things going on in people’s lives on top of this. Life was actually still happening during the fire.”

Of Horses, Home and Hell

One of the few horse housing options in Fort McMurray, the Clearwater Horse Club, is located just west of Highway 63 (the main thoroughfare in and out of Fort McMurray), very close to where the fire began on Sunday afternoon, May 1, 2016.

That evening, the club was put under mandatory evacuation. Within six hours, 120 horses were dispersed, “north, south, wherever we could find space,” said publicity director Charity Wiley.

Member Caroline Tilley loaded her 16-year-old mare Lena and two of her friend’s horses into a two-horse trailer and headed to LafargeHolcim’s aggregate plant in Fort McMurray where her husband Patrick Humphreys was manager. Patrick loaded sand into an empty shop bay, the horses had hay and water, and all was fine for a couple of days. “Then Tuesday all hell broke loose,” said Caroline.

Tuesday morning was beautiful and the club had decided to allow horses to return, since the evacuation order for their area had been lifted Monday evening. At that point, the fire was being held to the opposite side of the highway and there were two rivers in between. “But by 1:00 p.m., it was chaos,” said Charity Wiley. It turns out the fire had done the unexpected and jumped both rivers – one being two kilometres wide! It spread quickly due to temperatures of about 33°C, winds and low humidity.

Caroline said she had spent an “idyllic” morning at the club, but knew things were quickly changing on her drive back into town. “The sky was an ungodly colour of orange and black and the smoke was rolling in. It’s what I imagine hell is like,” she said. “My gut told me I need to get home and I need to get out.”

She was right. The entire town was now under a mandatory evacuation order.

People scrambled find safe harbour not only for their horses, but their own families. Many were forced to quickly make difficult choices. Charity found herself in that situation with her mare, Holly, that on Sunday was evacuated north of town. “I had no idea what I was going to do … I decided to leave without knowing what happened to her.”

Meanwhile, after picking up a few items, Caroline’s drive back to LafargeHolcim was like a disaster movie. “Traffic was in gridlock. People were panicking. They were driving on the sidewalks and through the ditches. There were huge line ups at the gas stations. Even driving down my street, I remember people running with suitcases and boxes and little children with their thumbs in their mouth, dragging their blanket down the front steps of the house with a stuffie under their arm.”

They spent a “comfortable” night at the plant while several horse people and their animals came and went for water, food or a rest. But it was their turn next. RCMP ordered them to evacuate Wednesday.

After a brief stay at a friend’s acreage where Lena’s presence caused some gelding politics, they landed at a barn in Redwater, an hour’s north of Edmonton. “We just drove into the yard with Lena in the trailer and I told the lady my problem and she just said, ‘Get that horse out of the trailer. Let’s get her comfortable.’”

Lena was settled, but what Caroline was about to see turned the couple’s lives upside down. The cover photo on the National Post featured smoking ruins. “As I looked at the picture, I realized the person who took the photo was standing on my front lawn. I showed it to my husband and there was no doubt. We had nothing left in the world.”

Back in Fort McMurray, Clearwater was also nearly totally destroyed by the fire. Of 39 barns on the property, only one was left untouched.

Operating under a unique model, the club is leased from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Members receive a self-maintained paddock on which they can keep their horses and erect barns or storage buildings. Unfortunately, due to the lease arrangement, members’ structures, equipment, feed and hay are uninsurable, so the fire dealt a deep financial blow for most. (The club’s own equipment and buildings are insured.)

While there’s typically a three- to five-year waiting list, more than half of the membership has yet to return and some have permanently relocated, resulting in what Charity called a “fairly significant turnover.”

Nevertheless, 30 per cent of the club is fully rebuilt, and 20 per cent is in the construction stage. Some members, like Caroline, plan to put up a barn come spring, although Lena is already happily ensconced in her paddock. Charity’s mare, Holly, is back too. She was evacuated safely in May and returned to Clearwater after more than six weeks at a farm in Sherwood Park.

Caroline and Patrick have bought another house in the same neighbourhood as their other home and will rebuild on the old lot. They, like so many in Fort McMurray, are moving forward, but not without difficulty.

“I didn’t have to drive through walls of fire or any of the stuff that a lot of people had to do. I always thought I was one tough customer. I could take whatever life dished out. But ever since this evacuation,” said Caroline, quietly fighting back tears. “I don’t understand it. I’m like this.”