Helen Waterman bustles through the barbershop, stopping to chat with her co-workers as she adjusts to her new surroundings of exposed brick, metallic accents and fire engine red chairs.
Friday was Waterman’s first day working at the Tommy Gun’s Original Barbershop in Westshore Town Centre. However, it wasn’t that long ago she was cutting hair for the franchise in Fort McMurray. All of that changed earlier this month when she was forced to evacuate with roughly 80,000 other people.
That day started much like a typical day, except, Waterman said, there was an eery red glow hanging over the entire town. She went to work and her boyfriend came to pick her up when her shift ended at 2 p.m. “We didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “It was scary.”
Waterman and her boyfriend lived in a part of town that was one of the last to be evacuated. On their way home from the barbershop, they tried to stop for gas but the line was too long.
“There was just queues everywhere; traffic wasn’t moving,” she said. They made a decision and she went home to pack while her boyfriend waited in line for gas. “He just got petrol and then that was it, there was none left for anyone else,” she said.
Waterman, originally from Ireland, was recruited by Tommy Gun’s nearly two years ago and has been working in Canada for the franchise. Back in Ireland she managed a salon but decided to leave because of her hometown’s limitations.
Now, she faced another tough decision as she fled her Canadian home. “There was two options, you could go north or south.” She said they didn’t want to head north to the oil camps because if the fire changed directions that could quickly become a bad situation.
Traffic crawled through town, Waterman said. It was organized chaos, people were driving on sidewalks and doing whatever they could to get out. But emergency responders were out in full force, making sure everyone was safe and for that she was incredibly grateful.
“We were giving water and bananas to the policemen,” she said. “They were there all day. They didn’t even have masks at that point.”
As they joined the hordes of people fleeing, the couple received word through social media that the road south was closed and north was their only option. But as they approached the turn the road south opened and they were able to make their way through the flames towards Edmonton.
“It was crazy,” Waterman said. “It took us 12 hours to drive to Edmonton.” During that time she said everyone, including her clients, were texting or reaching out through social media to make sure she got out.
Once in Edmonton, they managed to get a hotel room and took in a few friends that couldn’t get a room.
By this point, she said, her boss had contacted her asking if there was anything she needed. The franchise even paid for her room in Edmonton.
“Tommy Gun’s was just brilliant,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them we’d be lost.”
She noted everyone in Edmonton went above and beyond opening their doors to the Fort McMurray evacuees. Restaurants offered free meals, entertainment businesses opened their doors for children and everyone did whatever they could to help, she said.
With two franchise locations in Fort McMurray, employing roughly 30 people, Waterman said the company moved fast, finding them temporary work in other cities.
Within days of fleeing her home she found herself on a flight with her boyfriend to the Island, touching down on May 10. “They paid for our flights, paid for all brand new equipment,” she said.
Waterman, her boyfriend and two other Fort McMurray stylists were picked up at the airport and whisked away to their new temporary home.
Upon arriving in Saanich, she said, the fridge was full of food, there was goodie bags for them with personal toiletries and a number of gift cards for everything from clothing to groceries. There was even an rental car for them to use.
“You couldn’t have asked for more and we didn’t have to ask,” she said.
It wasn’t just a chaotic time for Waterman.After nearly two years of searching for the perfect location and two-and-a-half months of renovations, Ron Frolek and wife Tracy opened the newest Tommy Gun’s franchise at Westshore Town Centre on May 6. It was that day Frolek said he got the call asking if he had any room to take in some employees from Fort McMurray.
“It really worked out great,” Frolek said, as they were still looking for stylists. But they had to work quickly making arrangements. While the two Fort McMurray locations are believed to be still standing, the company has no idea when they will be able to re-open.
A Saanich resident, Frolek said they were able to rent the house next to his own for two months. But it wasn’t furnished.
After reaching out on social media, he said donations started pouring in and he was blown away by the community’s support. “It’s unbelievable, stuff’s still coming in,” he said.
The West Shore location was barely open a week when three of the Fort McMurray stylists started work last Friday. A fourth was scheduled to arrive over the weekend.
Frolek said they’re now prepared to keep the stylists as long as needed, noting they basically came with just a carry-on suitcase.
The company also outfitted them with brand new equipment to get them going while they are working on the Island. He said when you work for Tommy Gun’s, you’re part of the family and this family makes sure its own are taken care of. Frolek is “very proud to be a part of a business like that.”
While he said it’s been a hectic week to say the least, the appreciation shown by the stylists has more than made up for it. “They’re awesome people,” he said. “It’s been a pretty neat process.”
Waterman said looking back at the last two weeks, Tommy Gun’s made it a positive experience. She’s eager to pay some of that back and return to Fort McMurray when the time comes.
“Whenever they start up business again we’ll all be back to help,” she said.