Burnt vehicles near Paradise Valley around 4am on Monday, August 14, 2023. Photo: A G Carroll
Unsure about the best way to evacuate Hay River late on Sunday night, Eric Froment and his family tried to drive out when the barricade was briefly unmanned. Things went downhill from there.
When the call for Hay River, Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Enterprise to evacuate came at 3pm on Sunday afternoon, Froment left his home in Hay River to get gas at KFN.
He was low on money, and the First Nation, to which his partner belongs, was giving out gas. It’s about a 20-minute drive both ways – sometimes longer, depending on where in Hay River you are headed.
He drove back home and packed up his truck. Then he, his partner, their baby, and their three dogs headed south on the highway.
This would have been around 7:15pm or later. At that time, the Town of Hay River announced a fire had started near Paradise Gardens and Garden Road and told residents to evacuate to the airport for transport by air.
Looking back, Froment acknowledges they took too long to pack.
“So now we were stuck in town for a few hours, and with no cell service. And we were checking the airport – I had a truck full of three dogs, I had a kid and my girlfriend – and I just didn’t feel like a plane was the option, and I had no kennel for my dogs. So my plan was to just wait for the road to open,” he told Cabin Radio.
He continued to drive back to the roadblock on the highway to see if the road was open, and the fifth time he went, around 11pm, he said the RCMP were no longer on site and there was nothing to indicate the road was still closed.
“So we decided to continue along the highway towards Enterprise, not knowing what we were getting into,” he said.
“The smoke was quite thick. About 15 minutes down the road, it got to be so severe in the cab of the truck that our eyes were stinging, it was hard to see and even hard to breathe. It was getting pretty bad.”
In the vehicle, his girlfriend mentioned seeing a power pole burning. In the moment, he thought she said it had fallen, and he said he slowed down significantly as a result.
“I’m pretty sure that’s why we’re all alive right now,” he said. “Because I could have been going a little faster.”
It was only moments later that they got into a collision with another vehicle, as there were two broken-down vehicles in both lanes. With limited visibility and nearly no time to make a decision, Froment hit a Ford Mustang instead of a burnt-out truck and trailer.
“I had about three seconds to react. Bang! Airbags. Smoke in the truck. Sheer panic,” he said.
“I got my daughter out of the truck. I put a rag on her mouth so she could breathe because the smoke was just so bad.
“We find these two girls yelling and screaming, ‘Are you OK?’ They were missing a dog. So I don’t know if you can imagine, but it was just sheer terror, sheer panic, absolute chaos.”
The girls had been driving the rolled Mustang only a few minutes before, and had left the vehicle just before Froment hit it.
“If these girls were hurt and still in this car, I would have impaled them. It is so scary to think about,” he said.
Two of his three dogs jumped out of the truck during the chaos, and he was only able to get one to come back. The other is still missing. While he has heard reports that she’s been spotted since, she reportedly won’t let anybody capture her.
Both parties were screaming and yelling for help, he said, but it was the middle of the night and there was no other traffic on the closed road.
The best plan they had was to start to walk back to Hay River.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it. The smoke was so thick, but we had to do something,” Froment said.
Luckily, an RCMP vehicle passed them and officers were able to pick them up.
“As it turns out, the reason the roadblock was empty is because the three officers had responded to an accident, apparently, that was just slightly further down the road from where I had hit,” Froment said.
The family was dropped off at the airport and airlifted to Fort McMurray with their dogs. They have been set up in a hotel downtown.
When they arrived, they were greeted by social workers asking if they needed anything. Bylaw officers have provided necessities for their dogs.
“I’m feeling quite pampered by the town of Fort Mac and quite grateful for one being alive, two having somewhere to go right now, and three food in my belly,” said Froment.