The fire came in waves at Howard Ewashko’s family business: once on Tuesday afternoon, again in the evening.
Both times, Ewashko, his brother Craig, and a small band of workers at the sawmill north of Fort McMurray saw the “beast” of a wildfire threaten their operations, before it turned back.
Today, the Northland Forest Products sawmill is still standing, although its fate wasn’t so certain late Tuesday night.
“We had the fire less than a half-a-kilometre from us,” Ewashko recalled Wednesday morning during a break from wildfire preparations.
“It’s a huge fire and it’s almost living. It changes and it runs at you and then runs away from where they have the resources. It’s not acting like a normal forest fire.”
Ewashko, the company’s president, hopes the worst is behind them as the sprawling Fort McMurray wildfire turns in a different direction, having burned down more than 1,900 buildings, including the Blacksands Executive Lodge destroyed in the area Tuesday.
Two weeks ago, like all residents of Fort McMurray, Ewashko and his brother had to evacuate their hometown.
The sawmill was later shut down due to the escalating wildfire. The brothers, eight staff and another six to eight contractors are now staying at the company’s operations in the Athabasca River Valley, about 16 kilometres north of the community.
They sleep in the office and in nearby trailers, keeping a watchful eye as flames have gobbled up boreal forest north of Fort McMurray, inching closer by the day.
Tuesday was when the blaze made its biggest run yet.
In the morning, Alberta government wildfire manager Chad Morrison had warned flames could imperil Northland, a business created by Howard’s parents, Roy and Bev Ewashko, in 1971.
The company was taken over by the two brothers in the late 1990s and employs about 60 full-time workers at the mill.
Last week, flames burned near the east side of the facility. On Tuesday, winds pushed the wildfire up a ridge on the west side of Highway 63, across from the company’s operations.
“We had the fire come at us sometime in the afternoon, probably 3 to 4 p.m. and it got right to the (top) of the ridge — and then it petered out,” Ewashko said, noting once the fire moved from coniferous to leafy deciduous trees, it stopped.
“There was a big relief after the first run in the afternoon. Everyone thought, ‘Whew, it’s over,’ and we were all going to bed at 9. I ended up outside watching and the orange glow came above the river valley and then the flames started. So up we went again.”
The sawmill and its operations have a fire guard carved around the plant, but the group had to keep an eye on “amber transfer” — material coming out of the approaching fire that might land on their logs or buildings.
The plant has large log piles at potential risk, as air space between them could allow a small fire to escalate quickly.
Workers on site have been busy turning on sprinklers, operating heavy equipment and water trucks and spraying areas not easily reached with water cannons. They’ve also been spraying ditches to slow the blaze’s movement.
In addition, the province had a team of about 20 firefighters close by battling the flames, while helicopters provided air support.
By Tuesday night, all of these actions weren’t halting the inferno, which now spans 423,000 hectares.
“It was definitely 100 to 200 foot flames on the later run at us. It was high in the sky,” Ewashko, who is also chair of the Alberta Forest Products Association, said a few hours after the threat subsided.
“We have our trucks fuelled up and it was the day you really didn’t know what would happen on that ridge. We were hoping that it would die there — and luckily it did.”
However, that didn’t happen before RCMP advised the crew to leave.
Ewashko noted Highway 63 remained open in both directions, the business had access to updated fire information and it consulted regularly with provincial officials.
He was prepared to leave, but felt the group could hold its ground. He also worried if they left, they might never get back in.
So they stayed.
“No doubt in my mind it made a huge difference. Maybe the difference from us saving the mill and us losing the mill.”
On Wednesday, Ewashko, whose wife and family are staying in Edmonton, noted the crew was a bit sleep-deprived but had plenty of provisions.
His home in Fort McMurray is safe, although at least two of his employees have lost their houses.
From the province’s perspective, Morrison said Wednesday he hoped rain and cooler temperatures in the days ahead will make a difference in battling the blaze. He credited firefighters for holding the line on the blaze’s excursion west of Highway 63 this week.
“We are holding it currently away from the Northland mill site, we’re working with that company to continue to support then and their preparations, so we’ve had no (fire) impact there.”
But the latest battle hasn’t been easy.
“Myself and my brother Craig, we’ve had fantastic employees that have helped us through this … unbelievable the support we have got,” Ewashko said, his voice tight with emotion.
“(But) I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”