It has been a year since a major wildfire evacuated Fort McMurray, deploying help from across the province, including St. Albert.
Within 30 minutes of getting a request from the provincial operations centre, four St. Albert firefighters and a ladder truck were en route to assist. Over two weeks another seven crews of 12 St. Albert firefighters would be dispatched to rotate in and out of service in Fort McMurray to help with the firefighting.
Nobody expected the disaster would become the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history, with some 90,000 people out of their homes, and more than 2,400 homes and buildings burned.
For those fleeing the fire or running to assist there are many horrific images burned into their memories. Within days local firefighter Bryan Mroz, described to CBC radio a surreal experience of watching fire devour one house after another: “Watching the houses go – 30 seconds per house – just house after house,” Mroz said.
Yet hundreds of firefighters from near and far managed to save many structures; more than 80 per cent of the city. Miraculously, no one was killed in the fire, although, sadly, one person died in a traffic fatality as they fled the fire.
It took a massive collective effort of people across the province to assist in the evacuation, to provide services, and to provide temporary safe haven to many of the people displaced by the fire. Many St. Albert and Sturgeon area residents rose to the occasion.
Within two weeks of the fire 92 positions were filled by staff from the City of St. Albert including areas like FCSS, public works, utilities, finance, and technology services. Many people from Sturgeon County also pitched in.
Area businesses offered discounts and even free meals and services to Fort McMurray fire victims. Volunteers printed out signs or electronically distributed information to let evacuees know what services were available. There were many efforts to raise funds and gather goods for those who needed them. Some people took virtual strangers into their home.
The City of St. Albert granted special permitting for RVs and travel trailers for evacuees to park in residential neighbourhoods; provided free recreation, transit and library services; and even free admission to such events as the International Children’s Festival. Apex Casino, St. Albert Centre and Servus Place were among the places that allowed Fort McMurray evacuees to park RVs in their lots.
When disaster strikes, people pull together to do what is needed. It is inspiring to know that when calamity strikes we have shown we can respond with compassion and caring. The impact of the Fort McMurray wildfire will be remembered forever, but the response should be too. It demonstrated the power of unity, of kindness and cooperation.
“Bad things do happen in the world, like war, natural disasters, disease. But out of those situations always arise stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” – Daryn Kagan, journalist