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Words: Barry Strader
Photos: Jeanette Bancarz
It was the afternoon on Tuesday, May 3. Jeanette Bancarz, ATB community branch manager in Fort McMurray, glanced out her downtown branch window and knew it was time to leave. Now.
“It happened so quickly,” Bancarz recalled. “In the space of 20 minutes, I watched the fire move towards us over the hill. I was on a conference call and said, ‘I have to go. We’re in trouble here.’”
Bancarz and her husband drove around Fort McMurray to get a sense of the situation. As ash started to fall on their car, they decided it was time to evacuate. Three Fort McMurray neighbourhoods were already under mandatory evacuation, and Bancarz wasn’t about to wait for another announcement. She went back to her branch and told her fellow team members to close the branch, go home, get what and who they could, and leave Fort McMurray.
“It caught everybody off guard,” said Bancarz. “After seeing that ash, we were closed within an hour and everyone was heading home or somewhere. I had two team members who were distraught. One went with my assistant. She left her car at the branch because she wasn’t in a state to drive. Her husband was out of town. Another team member had already lost her home. She didn’t know what to do. I put her suitcases in my car and said, ‘Come with me.’ She wasn’t able to drive either. It was very terrifying.”
Once Bancarz and her husband packed what they could, including their cats, they attempted to leave. But to drive one and a half blocks from their house took two hours and 15 minutes.
“Traffic wasn’t moving,” she said. “Everyone was trying to get on the same road to get to the same main artery. Every side street was emptying onto the same road. To get to the south side of Fort McMurray usually takes about 17 minutes. It took us over five hours.”
Fortunately, Bancarz owns an acreage near Calahoo west of Edmonton, a trip that usually takes four and a half hours. This time, it took 12. It was slow going the entire trip.
“There were already cars abandoned within the city limits,” Bancarz said. “There was a run on gas and the gas stations were empty. We had to leave one of our vehicles because we didn’t have enough gas. I watched people with cans walking to gas stations, and the gas stations were closed. People were all over the side of the highway, waiting for someone to bring them gas.”
When Bancarz got to the family’s acreage, she checked her email and noticed that ATB had already announced a disaster relief program for those displaced by the fire. She was impressed with how quickly ATB put the program into action and the creative ways ATB team members were able to help victims.
“The Customer Care Centre had one Fort McMurray customer who was waiting to sign loan documents for a vehicle,” she said. “They were able to do that electronically and ATB funded the loan for that customer. He was looked after, virtually. The loan was in the works and had already been approved, they just needed to get the money for it. The care centre just looked after it.”
Bancarz is also thankful that ATB team members across Alberta have stepped up to offer support in whatever ways they can.
“We have several branches who are helping us make calls to our customers,” she said. “We aren’t alone in this. Our whole ATB community is coming together to help our clients.”