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By Colleen Isherwood, Editor
FORT MCMURRAY, BONNYVILLE, Alta. — For Patricia Morrison, regional general manager for MasterBUILT, the Fort McMurray fire story began on Sunday, May 1, when their Super 8 was in one of the first areas of town to receive the evacuation order. At 10:30 that night, she locked the doors to the Super 8, which she had managed for eight years before her recent promotion.
“I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I walked through those doors,” she told CLN in an interview.
That Super 8, which had recently undergone extensive renovations, burned to the ground, its sign and the one for Denny’s underneath it among the charred ruins, was one of the enduring images of the fire.
On Monday, the city announced that the evacuation was still in effect, but that no more areas were affected. It wasn’t until she and her husband, Jeff, were in downtown Fort Mac doing their shopping the morning of Tuesday, May 3 that things changed.
As she walked out of the Canadian Tire, Morrison took some photos of the fire, noting that it didn’t look too good. They continued on to Save On Foods, where they found out at the check-out that the whole city had been evacuated. They dashed home and packed up clothes, dogs and dog food, thinking they would drive to Gregoire Lake, just south of the city, then meet up with Jeff’s two children. They took her Journey rather than the truck, because it had more gas.
The Super 8 was still standing as they drove by. Morrison tried to take a picture, but just got smoke.
“It was scary,” said Morrison. “I was driving down the road I had travelled for the past eight years. It was stopped with traffic and the hills to the right were on fire.” Then, further down the road, blue skies and sun.
It took three hours for the kids to reach them in Gregoire Lake because traffic was wall to wall. “Once reunited, nothing matters,” Morrison said. “If the house goes, we can always rebuild. If we don’t have our photos, at least we are alive to remember them.”
The convoy composed of Morrison, her husband and two dogs, and the kids in another car, stopped at Anzac to get gas. “But there were at least 50 cars in the lineup. We had to leave the kids’ car in Anzac,” Morrison said.
Texting and glued to social media, Morrison heard that MasterBUILT was housing evacuees in Bonnyville and Whitecourt for free. They headed to the Microtel in Bonnyville, one of the properties that falls under Morrison’s regional managership.
That night, the place was full, including several staff members from the Super 8 Fort Mac. “It was organized chaos, but Raul [Wiens], the general manager, and the night auditor had keys to let us in,” said Morrison. “The place had turned into an evacuation centre — there were people with water and clothing. The staff at the Microtel were amazing to take this on at no notice.
“There were smiles, in spite of the horrible news. The town of Bonnyville itself was tremendous. Every day, a different organization or company would provide lunch or dinner. A church group gave us homemade meals; there was always a barbecue outside or lunch in the main lobby.”
Morrison’s house survived the fire.
“It was hard to lose the hotel because just a year ago April, we had finished renovations, making it beautiful,” she said. “It was our year of awards, too. We thought is was going to be a good year, even with the downturn and decrease in occupancy.
“MasterBUILT really stepped up. I am proud to be part of the organization.”