By Benjamin Waldman
Late on the morning of May 3, 2016, Olivia Condon sat in a helicopter thousands of feet above Fort McMurray, Alberta, looking down at one of the most devastating wildfires in Canadian history. For a moment, it looked like the flames might be dying down.
Only five months into her tenure as managing editor of Fort McMurray Today, Condon, then 22, was already facing a major editorial challenge. With a newsroom consisting of only herself and three reporters, Condon had to co-ordinate the coverage of huge wildfires and one of the most significant recorded mass evacuations the country had ever seen. And once the entire community was forced to leave their homes, her team had to evacuate their newsroom, too.
“My second thought was our safety,” Condon says. “My first thought was what are we missing and how can we get that information to everyone across the country in a timely manner.”
The main office didn’t have any windows, but Condon’s had a large one facing east, away from the fire. After returning to the newsroom from her helicopter ride, Condon looked out, and the situation seemed to improve.
Then a co-worker burst in: “You’ve got to see what’s going on out back.”
It was only about 1 p.m., but to the west the sky was so dark with smoke that it already looked like midnight. Ash filled the air, and the burnt remnants of trees already lost to the flames danced in the powerful winds, stoking the quickly growing wildfire to unprecedented strengths. “It looked like the early part of a snowfall,” Today reporter Vincent McDermott recalls.
Condon drove home and picked up her two cats. McDermott left the office with only a notepad, his cellphone and a healthy supply of pens. Municipal affairs reporter Cullen Bird and sports scribe Robert Murray didn’t have much more. For several days, McDermott and Bird shared a single laptop.
The staff joined the southward procession away from the city. Condon’s 2001 Honda Accord didn’t have air conditioning, and with propane tanks exploding along Highway 63 as she drove with a quarter-tank of gas, she couldn’t roll down her windows to quell the intense heat. It was difficult to breathe. “A sensory overload,” she remembers.
Later in the afternoon, all four Today employees found each other outside Fort McMurray First Nation. McDermott was on the phone, Murray captured video, and Bird sat cross-legged in a ditch doing a little bit of everything. They had a 7 p.m. deadline.
Condon went to Lac La Biche, Alberta, the reporters went to nearby Anzac, and soon they began a month-long stay at the Edmonton Journal, another Postmedia subsidiary to which Today reported. While its newsroom was out of commission, Today had access to Postmedia resources, including journalistic support, office space, and mental health services. Reporters from both publications worked together to cover the fire, and their work was stronger because of it. “We essentially became one newsroom and merged all our resources,” Condon says.
The Today team somehow still managed to make its print deadline for May 4, and called in to Edmonton with any information they had. A detailed story written by Bird and McDermott hit the web a few hours after the city was evacuated, and from there, the crew was up and running.
Kyle Darbyson found out he was hired as Today’s intern two days before the fire started. Instead of going to Fort McMurray, where his parents lived, Darbyson went straight to Edmonton to begin his first professional journalism gig. “It was exciting but intimidating,” he says. “The entire country and much of North America had their attention fixed on what we were reporting because we were on the ground.”
Murray became the paper’s de facto photographer and videographer, capturing visuals, which—like much of the paper’s coverage—went viral. Some of his video work topped one million views, and soon the employees of the tiny, unheralded publication were called by the likes of CNN, BBC and Fox News for their analysis and input.
“We were basically covering a city in exile,” McDermott says. “Even if we had to file from a ditch, we still had a job to do.”
The paper regularly surpassed its normal daily output during the evacuation, sometimes putting out as many as five stories per day; on normal days, they’d put out three. Its regular print run was around 15,000 six days a week, and usual online traffic reached somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 people per day. Throughout the month of May, Today consistently topped one million unique hits on Facebook daily.
Even as the fire burned, Today continued to publish a print product. The presses were in Leduc, about 33 kilometres away from Edmonton, so they were still functional during Fort McMurray’s shutdown. Around 5,000 papers were delivered to the evacuation centres around the province. Before the fire, Condon says print journalism was struggling to keep its footing in the city. “During the fire, people relied on us heavily,” she says.
“I’ve always believed rural communities are the ones most starved for news,” McDermott adds. And in those temporary refuges that became clearer than ever. “A lot of people came in every morning just to grab the paper. I could tell there had been a mad-grab for them.”
Until residents began pouring back into the city, Today’s reporters continued to file. Darbyson wrote about a kid selling his Pokémon cards to raise money for other children who’d lost their possessions in the fire. Murray kept shooting and covering sports, while Bird and McDermott continued chasing any new angle the fire coughed up.
“The city evacuated 90,000 people,” he said. “That meant there were at least 90,000 stories to cover.”
On June 1, small pockets of Fort McMurray were finally deemed safe for re-entry. McDermott camped out in his car the night before to report on the influx of residents, and the rest of the team soon followed back.
For their work, Today and the Journal were rewarded with a National Newspaper Award for breaking news coverage. The reporting was also a harbinger for oncoming business success. Today’s readership spiked in both print and digital form, a rare double success story in 2017. The paper’s print circulation jumped by 16.5 per cent in a little over a year.
Though Bird and Murray both left the paper to take on new jobs, and Darbyson has since begun reporting for the Citizen in Thompson, Manitoba, McDermott and Condon are still at Today.
“I’d like to think we’re taken a little bit more seriously now,” Condon says.
The fire still makes its way into about a tenth of the stories Condon runs. The paper now publishes only three times per week, but to a larger audience than before. Shortly after returning to Fort McMurray, Today moved to a new office. This one has windows facing west.