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In The Field: Jason Markusoff

Jason Markusoff describes the race to get the story, and the measures taken to sneak into the fire-ravaged community — days before the official media tour. 


 Maclean's wasn't there the day flames invaded Fort McMurray and everybody evacuated the city; given our newsroom's size, we can be a bit risk-averse when we're not sure major news will in fact, break. As I prepared for the journey north with photographer Chris Bolin the next day, I came up with a few angles or feature ideas for my morning editors' call. They had their own idea–nothing less than the ultimate story of the wildfire that ravaged Fort McMurray, from the first spark to the saga's end (or, more accurately, up until our deadline hit one week later). It was ambitious; Maclean's editors like ambitious. 

I'd written before on wildfires, and knew it takes weeks, months or longer to pinpoint a wildfire's origin. Finding the spark was near-impossible; but at the Edmonton hotel where Chris and I staged our journey north, I found the closest darned thing. A Suncor worker had seen the first clouds of black smoke in the woods outside Fort McMurray – and, for a perfect setup frame, she witnessed it from the cockpit of a giant oil sands truck. Before I started heading towards the wildfire, I'd found the perfect opening scene to our epic narrative.

From Edmonton, the closest we could get to Fort Mac was the town of Lac La Biche, about 2 1/2 hours south of the RCMP checkpoint barring access to the flame-scarred city. Evacuees doubled the town's population overnight, many staying on emergency cots in the recreation centre. Bolin and I were doubted any chance of finding anywhere to stay, so we filled our rental minivan with sleeping bags and pillows alongside the jerry cans and provisions. (By fluke, we snared a cancelled hotel room.) In chatting up some of the shuttle bus drivers, I found one of the last stubborn McMurrayites who resisted the evacuation order, whom I profiled for a standalone online story and used as one of the remarkable characters illuminating our long feature. Evacuee after evacuee wanted to share their story with reporters, and each one brought shades of a similar tale – the abrupt order to get out, the harrowing drive through a column of smoke and ash, and the wonderful hospitality and assistance offered by every Albertan they met along the way to safety.  

Accounts from the fire survivors and volunteers were at the core of our story, but I knew a comprehensive story needed my own eyewitness reporting. I needed to get into the evacuated city, even if it was sealed shut to residents and media; pretty much anybody without a firefighter's uniform or from another relief outfit. As I learn so often in journalism, you never know how a generous gesture will be met. At a gas station nearest to the RCMP checkpoint, a woman asked to use my cellphone to locate her own beneath the seats. We got to chatting, and she had a way to sneak Chris and me into town. We hid in the rear cabin of a service truck, swallowing our tongues as a Mountie questioned our driver. We were the first Canadian media team to smell the citywide campfire odour, to see the vast expanses of ash and charred swing sets where full neighbourhoods once stood, to hear the eerie quiet of a boom town turned ghost town. Had we not snuck into Fort McMurray three days before other media got a controlled tour with the Prime Minister (the same day our feature was due), we'd have filed our feature without this indelible chapter. 

Maclean's threw its entire newsroom at the wildfire saga for a special issue, with the long feature at its centrepiece. It was always conceived as a joint effort: me in Fort McMurray (or as close as I could get), Vancouver-based Nancy Macdonald with thousands of evacuees in Edmonton, and senior writer Charlie Gillis anchoring the effort from Toronto. We compared notes, and were excited by the power of drama and insight we'd all collected; the need to write 11,000 words in roughly two days was exciting, too, but in the way an undergraduate essay all-nighter packed the adrenalin punch. We divided the task into chapters, and each became lead writer for a few. Our filing system only allows one user at a time, so we wrote the feature in Google Doc. It was surreal to see one document with three main writers adding material, editors carving into it and colleagues offering their own supplementary files – even from my table in Edmonton, it felt like I was a chef in a crowded, sweaty kitchen. About 36 sleepless hours and a scotch bottle later, I filed my last sentences as Charlie went through the whole thing to give it flow.

I waited until it was posted to the Maclean's tablet edition before reading the whole piece, to enjoy the reader's experience. Though I knew how it would unfold, the narrative gave me a tense neck, white knuckles and tear-moistened cheeks. We learned later that the print issue was so in-demand among Albertans that on the same Fort Mac evacuee Facebook page where people were soliciting necessities, some people were bartering for magazine copies.  

 

Jason Markusoff is the Alberta correspondent for Maclean’s.

 

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