If Cora Dion only needed transport for two horses as she fled Fort McMurray with her twin 15-year-old daughters, three dogs and a cat, the family’s escape from Alberta’s worst wildfire in years would have been fairly straightforward.
But she had four horses. And a trailer for two.
And as Dion conjured complex plans to get her family to safety, the wind-goaded flames did not co-operate.
It started Sunday night. Fearing the fire would spread to their horse club, they moved the animals to their backyard in downtown Fort McMurray. In two trips.
“Tuesday afternoon my daughters and I were outside, just hanging out with the horses, and we heard an explosion,” Dion said.
“We figured it was Beacon Hill, and we should probably get on the move.”
So they headed for MacDonald Island, a park at the junction of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. They arrived, her daughters walking the two horses, only to be told that wasn’t safe, either.
“We were terrified. We didn’t know where we should go.”
So they joined the vehicular torrent on Highway 63 — Dion, the dogs and the cat in her truck; two horses in the trailer; and Gwen and Karlee riding the two remaining horses.
They didn’t even have time to saddle them both: Karlee rode bareback; Gwen took charge of Addie, a six-year-old thoroughbred who, as a racehorse, is high-strung by nature.
Sometimes they took the shoulder, Dion driving slowly alongside. Where there was no shoulder, they were on the road, in traffic.
Horses tend not to relish being surrounded by engine-revving motorists on the edge of a forest fire.
“Nostrils flaring; eyes wide open” from the smoke, Dion recalls.
“We had Harleys driving right behind. Normally a Harley would cause great stress, especially in a really young horse like Addie.”
But it went well — “shockingly amazing,” Dion said.
Gutsy daughters and trusting horses helped.
“Seriously, for my daughter to jump on a six-year-old thoroughbred and ride down the highway, that takes guts,” she said.
And the horses “were like, ‘OK, obviously someone’s trying to get us somewhere safe here.’”
The makeshift caravan wended its way south, juggling horses between borrowed trailers.
“My horse, she’s very much the leader of our little herd there, and you could tell she was very visibly trying to suppress her stress. She was pretending to be calm, but when we pulled her off she was drenched with sweat.”
As Dion and her girls waited for their next ride at the junction of highways 63 and 881, a stranger with a four-horse trailer pulled up beside them.
“I don’t know who you are, but load in — let’s get going,” she recalls him saying.
“He literally put my horses in his trailer and we were on the road in five minutes.”
They dropped the horses off with breeders and made it to Dion’s dad’s place in Edmonton. Including her brother-in-law’s family there are nine of them there right now. It’ll be an even 10 when Dion’s husband, out of town for work, joins them.
“Noah’s Ark, 2016,” she calls their odyssey.
They’ve no idea when they’ll be able to go home or what will be left when they do. (So far, from what they hear, the house is still standing.)
Especially painful is the thought of the animals they left behind: a corn snake, a bearded dragon, and a ball python named Demetrius who probably won’t make it without carefully controlled heat and humidity.
Hunter, their 10-year-old cat, was nowhere to be found when they left. Dion hopes he can take care of himself for a little while.
“Honestly, now that I look back, it was pretty terrifying,” Dion says.
But at the time, she was in survival mode.
“I was just, OK, this is what we have to do.”