How an oilsands facility became a makeshift hospital during the wildfire

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With a wildfire heading towards Fort McMurray and an evacuation order in place, Mavis Ure was in no position to leave. She needed more than a few minutes to get herself together.

Not to grab keepsakes or photo albums but to get the feeling back in her extremities. Having just given birth — to twins, no less — her legs weren’t working as well as she would have liked at that exact moment.

Nearly one year later, Mavis is still in disbelief about what happened.

‘You would never in a million years imagine that something like that is going to happen during the birth of your child.’ – Mavis Ure

“It was a crazy, crazy, crazy day that you would never in a million years imagine that something like that is going to happen during the birth of your child,” she says.

Her husband Curtis remembers how the day began on May 3, 2016. The air was clear and the sun was shining, a pleasant change after a few smoky days in the community from forest fires in the region.

The twin boys were born just before noon. Garrett and Waylon were both healthy, each weighing seven pounds, 15 ounces.

Curtis started sharing the good news with friends but found their replies odd.

“I kept getting these texts back saying ‘Well, what’s the deal with this fire?'”

Around 2 p.m. staff at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre began talking about moving patients out of the hospital as the wildfire roared closer and closer to town.

“At first I was like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to evacuate the hospital — that’s the last thing they’re going to evacuate,” said Mavis.

Only a few hours after a Caesarean section, Mavis was told to get ready. The nurses said, ‘We think we may need to leave. We need to get you up and walking. Can you move?’

“At that point, I maybe had 50 per cent of the feeling back in my legs,” said Mavis.

Boarding buses

Patients were moved onto city buses, and the plan was to transport them to an oilsands camp about a 20-minute drive north of Fort McMurray. A few minutes into the trip it became clear the camp was full and the bus would have to drive much farther, to the Suncor Firebag oilsands facility about 120 kilometres northwest.

The highway was congested and traffic came to a standstill several times as thousands of others sought refuge at oilsands sites north of the city after the evacuation order was issued for Fort McMurray.

“The traffic was horrible — you couldn’t go one way or another,” Curtis said. “There were people camped on the side of the road.”

The twin boys were inside a plastic bassinet on Curtis’s lap for most of the trip. Mavis, still in her hospital gown, nursed and changed the babies’ diapers. Theirs were not the only newborns on the bus.

“I remember just thinking that once I get to Firebag, I can lay down. I can lay down and go to sleep and we’ll deal with this tomorrow,” said Mavis.

In the midst of the evacuation chaos, they weren’t sure of the whereabouts of their other child, Savanna, who was with Mavis’s dad.

After eight or nine hours on the road, the bus pulled into the Firebag oilsands site after midnight. Staff at the aerodrome had converted a maintenance shop near the runway into a makeshift hospital.

“This is the biggest building on our little airport and it was the biggest open space we had,” said Myles Tuttle, the supervisor at the Firebag aerodrome. Staff used spray paint on the floor to organize the space and separate the patients according to their condition.

24-hour adventure

“There were people in there on stretchers,” Mavis said. “They gave me IV fluids, took my blood pressure … things that hadn’t happened since I left the hospital.”

Mavis and the boys were on the next flight out of Firebag while Curtis stayed behind to wait for Savannah and Mavis’ father to arrive.

The 24-hour adventure wrapped up as Mavis landed in Edmonton and was taken to the Grey Nuns Community Hospital around 8 a.m. Curtis landed in Edmonton shortly after.

Mavis Ure and her twin boys

The twin boys will celebrate their first birthday on May 3. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Mavis considers her family lucky. She says the situation could have been a lot worse if not for the companies and medical staff involved. Her biggest apprehension about the whole experience was taking the babies outside the hospital with smoke in the air and ash falling from the sky. Staff gave all the patients masks to cover their mouths. They gave her two tiny ones for her newborns.

“That was the one thing that did concern me. What is the lasting impact of being hours old and breathing this stuff in as we were leaving the hospital?” said Mavis.

The Ure family is back living in Fort McMurray and they don’t plan on leaving the community anytime soon. Both parents work for Suncor as managers in the oilsands.

They’ve kept magazines and newspaper clippings from the wildfire to show the boys when they are older. Mavis still considers the whole experience surreal.

“Every time I drive by the hospital — especially because there are still burnt sticks on that hill — I think about it. Every single time,” she said.

The couple is now talking about how to celebrate the twins’ one-year birthday.

“Have a birthday party?” suggested Mavis.

“Probably won’t have a bonfire,” said Curtis.

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How an oilsands facility became a makeshift hospital during the wildfire

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