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Former Estevan resident evacuated from Fort McMurray for second time in eight years

Nolan Haukeness said they were able to better prepare to leave their home this time around.
Nolan Haukeness, back row right, with his wife Jenine, and their children Maren, front row left, and Aiden.

ESTEVAN - The wildfire that struck Fort McMurray in 2016 is still fresh in the mind of former Estevan resident Nolan Haukeness and his wife Jenine.

They had to scramble to flee the flames and smoke. Their duplex home in Fort Mac's Abasand subdivision was destroyed. They opted to rebuild in the area, and have since started a family, with two daughters, Maren and Aiden.

The latest wildfire outside of Fort McMurray has forced the family to evacuate again, although this time the situation is different, thanks to the size of the fire, the time they had to prepare and some other circumstances.

In an interview with the Mercury and SaskToday, Haukeness said they had been under an evacuation alert this time due to the fire that had been southwest of the city, but the wind changed direction, pushing the flames from about 15 kilometres from the city to 10.

An evacuation notice was issued on Tuesday, telling residents they might have to leave in two hours, and it was bumped up to an order later that day.

"We had already had a bag packed, so we figured maybe we would use that time to pack a little more stuff, so we packed up about three or four suitcases, and a bit of food for the road, and made sure we were gassed up, and were a lot better prepared than we were the last time."

They gathered all of their important documents, phoned the insurance company, and took photos and videos of everything in their home.

Only the southern part of Fort McMurray was evacuated this time, so it took less than six hours to make the 400-kilometre-plus trek to Edmonton. Traffic moved steadily, which is a different story from 2016, when the entire city was evacuated and vehicles were often at a standstill.

"Everybody that needed to get out is out right now," said Haukeness. "And half the town is still functioning. The north end of town is still a semblance of normal."

The time they had to prepare marked the biggest difference from eight years ago, he said. In 2016, they escaped with their vehicle, a few bags, prescriptions, their dog and the deed to the home. Eventually, they had to leave the vehicle and bags behind.

"They lost track at how close the fire was [in 2016] just because of the smoke. This time they didn't even want to take the chance. They evacuated everybody with time to spare," said Haukeness.

Eight years ago, they had to head north before driving south to Edmonton, and the journey took 30-35 hours.

There were a couple other differences this time around. For starters, they're parents. Jenine Haukeness was pregnant with their first daughter Aiden the last time they had to leave. Maren was born a couple of years later.

Nolan Haukeness praised his kids for how they have handled the situation. They were scared at the start, and he joked that half of the luggage they packed was stuffed animals, because the kids didn't want to leave their favourite toys behind.

"The kids are pulling through. We're trying to keep them busy with fun activities and stuff."

They have a doorbell camera on their home, so the kids want to check in on how the duplex is doing.

Their dog, who was two years old in 2016, is now 10, and has handled the latest evacuation well.

His parents, Lyle and Jody, were visiting in Fort McMurray for Maren's birthday, which is May 17. They arrived at Nolan and Jenine's home about 90 minutes before the evacuation order was issued. The elder Haukeness couple has now returned home to Estevan.

"It was their first evacuation experience," said Haukeness with a laugh.

Support has been great, he said. When Haukeness spoke for the interview, he and his family were at Edmonton's Telus World of Science, which offered free admission for evacuees that day. There are friends from Fort Mac they have been able to reconnect with in Edmonton, and there have been birthday celebrations for Maren.

"She's getting a little birthday love wherever she goes," Haukeness said.

The family has also had a lot of support from friends in the Estevan area. He received a lot of messages after they were evacuated, including some from people he hadn't heard from in a long time.

"It's always nice to get that support," he said.

The good news is the forecast looks favourable. Rain is expected from May 17-20, which will help combat the flames. With the right wind direction, Haukeness said the flames could make up the 10-kilometre distance in a day.

Due to his job, Haukeness has to be back in Fort McMurray on May 19; he'll be staying with some friends in one of the neighbourhoods that hasn't been cleared out.

"We're not worried about anything quite yet," said Haukeness. "And we were saying when we left, even if we did lose the house, everything that is important is in the car. We've been through the insurance thing before. We've been through rebuilding before. The first experience shapes the way you think about the second experience."