When The Province and The World Stepped Up To Help
As I began to write this article, I was en route to Fort McMurray for the first time since the evacuation. As I process through everything we’ve seen weeks past, I remember more good than bad. More encouraging than discouraging. More uplifting than heartbreaking. Even as some lost everything they own, the community spirit of Wood Buffalo was made known the world over. Putting everything into words has been a therapeutic venture, but it has also been hard. Remembering the many, many things that have happened this past month was a bit of a stretch. I told myself I would write everything down, but didn’t. But many of the memories from this month have come back.
To start this off, I want to extend a thank you to every member of the regional emergency services, including the Fort McMurray Fire Department, RCMP and bylaw officers. Without these hard working, tireless heroes, we would have surely lost a much larger amount of our city, including the downtown core. My heart and prayers go out to every one of these incredible people.
I work for KAOS 91.1, and I was at a conference in Edmonton last weekend, where I interviewed two separate folks from the UK. They both said the same thing: the Fort McMurray fire was the top headline for two weeks. The news of what happened to our city spread; the news of a near apocalyptic event. It was a miracle that the fire itself didn’t take any lives.
As I fled south through Fort McMurray on the morning of May 3rd, my boss’s car was down to a quarter tank of gas. If we didn’t get gas soon, we would be one of the many vehicles abandoned on the side of the road, and wouldn’t have arrived to our destination of Red Deer. We passed a mobile gas unit, which we recognized by the long lineup of vehicles on the side of the road. As we waited in line, we estimated they’d give us a quarter tank, or maybe a half tank, to get us through to Edmonton. We were given cold bottles of water as we waited, and once we arrived at the tank, we were given a full tank of gas for free. We weren’t charged, when we would’ve paid hundreds of dollars at that moment for fuel. My thanks goes to the company that did this for us.
With only a few minutes to get things together before I left Fort McMurray, I didn’t grab much. I needed clothing and toiletries to get through until we returned to McMurray. A store in Sylvan Lake, Alberta called Sugarbelle Bakery, ceased operation of their business to run an evacuation centre. Tables filled with everything from underwear to sweaters, shaving cream to toothpaste, and the many items necessary to keep ourselves going. I also heard about an organization called Outcast Paintball in Red Deer, who filled their store with everything from food to clothing. We saw the same thing we always do when natural disasters occur: the community, province and country pulling together. In the case of the Fort McMurray fire, the world came together. With firefighters from every province, and around the world, the fire was contained, and the city began seeing folks return on June 1st, nearly one month later.
A couple weeks after the fire occurred, I decided to take a trip with my sister and friend to the West Edmonton Mall water park (one of my favorite spots in Alberta!) While walking around the mall, I saw what several were posting on Facebook: Store after store after store providing discounts to Fort McMurray residents. I went to Lids (a retailer specializing in athletic headwear), and bought my custom YMM STRONG hat. They had a bunch of these hats on the go, which meant several of them were ordered and being made. I also had a great conversation with a man who owned a music store. He was in the mall when the news of the Fort McMurray fire broke, and just two days later, a couple entered his store. They looked to be in complete hysteria, as they lost their home. The husband was particularly distraught, as he lost many items, including his guitars. I do not recall what the store owner did for the man, but I do remember he mentioned when the man came back a few days later, he was doing a lot better. Speaking with people is all residents who have lost their homes have. They don’t have anything else.
A few days after I got to my parent’s house in Red Deer, I decided to take the afternoon off from social media and watching the news to go see a movie. As I arrived to the theatre, I saw 3 pickup trucks set up accepting donations. When I spoke with the folks stationed, I was told a 17-year-old boy drove a load the previous day to Boyle, and returned early in the morning, just to station himself again in Gasoline Alley in Red Deer. He felt in his heart he had to do something for Fort McMurray, and he did. He’s one of thousand faceless friends of Wood Buffalo.
Another such friend is one much closer to me. My Aunt Rosy, a massage therapist in Blackfalds, Alberta, would spend all day working and then head over to the Best Western in Red Deer, where she spent a week giving evacuees free massages. Best Western gave evacuees a free place to stay, while local businesses brought in lunch and dinner daily. The approximately 40 evacuees were given piece of mind, while they were taken care of. I ran into two couples I know from Fort McMurray, and have been good friends through our church for some time. When I sat down for dinner with one of the couples at a barbecue outside the hotel, they began to tell me about losing all of their memories, their vehicles, and their home. I knew a few folks up to this point who had lost their homes, but these were my first friends in person that told me the story. An important reminder that there are people who we know that are grieving their losses right now.
I’m also reminded of the incredible show of support from Alberta’s Oil Sands companies. Friends were about to have a baby, while one of their children fainted several times the day of the evacuation. Shell Albian Sands flew them via helicopter to Edmonton to the Stollery Children’s Hospital to be taken care of. They had a baby boy, delivered safe and sound, away from the smoke of the fires.
Once you go through something like this, it’s pretty incredible watching doors open for you to share your story. Starting Wednesday, May 4th at 6am, I began my first of nearly 40 interviews that were a part of the YMM fire story, on radio, tv, and print media throughout Canada. I also had the opportunity to share my story in schools and with a local youth group in Sylvan Lake. There were kids at all of these locations who were evacuated, and I had the opportunity to hear their story, and speak hope into their lives. I’m thankful for the position I’ve been in since this all went down, as communicating with the community has been my job.
I will also never forget the day I was in the station, and returned on-air. That was a victorious moment. If I recounted all the stories of what I saw this past month, the entire magazine would be full. Suffice to say, Fort McMurray was covered. From South African firefighters, to the provincial and federal government matching donations made to the Canadian Red Cross, to Borealis Counseling setting up in St. Albert for free in-person and phone appointments...my heart is so full when I think about the love, care and support the residents of Northern Alberta were shown.
We will rise from the ashes, and Fort McMurray will restore to its former self, and then some. Get ready for the best Fort McMurray yet!
Love you, and see you back in the Mac soon!