Fort McMurray is a small Canadian city in the northeastern corner of Alberta. (Here’s a map.) Today, it’s home to about 65,000 people, but for most of May 2016, it was home to virtually no one. On May 1st of that year, a fire broke out in the woodlands neighboring the city, and the dry, hot weather at the time made it impossible to keep the fire under control. At first, the city issued a limited evacuation order for some of its neighborhoods, but the fire crept away, and on May 2nd, authorities revised the edict — residents were advised to shelter in place. Unfortunately, the next day brought bad news. At 5 PM local time on May 3rd, the city reinstituted the evacuation order and expanded it to cover more neighborhoods, and less than two hours later, they expanded it again to cover the entire city. Everyone had to leave, and quickly.
But not everyone did. And while his decision put his own life at risk, it may have saved some of his neighbor’s friends.
Lee Ellis was a construction manager working on a site about an hour north of Fort McMurray when the evacuation order came down. While he should have stayed away, he decided to come back home to grab some of his belongings. On his trip back home, though, he saw the chaos as virtually everyone fled. So instead of just grabbing some of his stuff and going, Ellis made another questionable decision — he decided to just kind of hang out and wait for traffic to abate.
While hanging out at home as the world burned around him, Ellis likely checked in with some friends. One of those friends had also been north of the city but, unlike Ellis, didn’t go back home. That friend also had a cat, and the next day, asked Ellis to swing by to feed his pet. Ellis, still ignoring the evacuation order, obliged — and then some. As he told CBC News, “I went to his house, fed and watered his cat, and then on the way back I heard some dogs barking in a backyard. So I went and knocked on the house. No one was there, so I proceeded to take those three dogs and I brought them to my house.”
Wildfires. An ignored evacuation order. And now, three dogs and a cat. Sensing the elements of a great Facebook post brewing, Ellis shared the details of his mini-adventure to his network of friends online. Word spread around town that someone was still in Fort McMurray and taking in pets, and before the day was out, dozens of people were asking Ellis to check in on their pets, too. So, he did. For the next four days, residents of Fort McMurray sent him their alarm codes, where they kept their pet food, and the names of their pets. Ellis, who was soon joined by a couple of other non-evacuees, hopped on bicycles (instead of cars, “to avoid being found and kicked out of the city,” per CBC News) and made sure the pets were fed. He posted his results on Facebook, with photos, and was showered with thank you notes from those who had to leave their fur babies behind.
On day four, though, a new problem appeared — all of that bike riding, in Ellis’ words, resulted in “bruises on our butts.” They decided to chance discovery by using a car instead and were quickly found. The police detained them and brought them to a shelter for evacuees, ending their spree of pet feedings.
It’s unclear, though, if Ellis ultimately saved many pets. The evacuation of Fort McMurray did not end until June 1st, and more than 3,000 buildings were destroyed during the month of fires. While some first responders were likely able to get some of the pets, it’s likely that many other animals did not make it out. And Ellis put himself and those same rescue workers at risk by remaining in the area. But for some pet owners, he’s their hero.
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