If you have been following the news at all you will be aware of the disaster unfolding in northern Alberta. Wildfires themselves aren’t that exceptional in the north, but this one is a monster that is resisting all efforts to tame it. The fire now covers about 1600 square kilometres, an area about the size of New York City, and authorities are saying that only better weather conditions (cooler and wet) will be able to stop it.
Right in the middle of that inferno last week was the city of Fort McMurray, with a population of about 80,000. The fire has moved on now and the damage to the city, while it could have been catastrophic, appears to have been (relatively) minor with about 90% of the homes saved and most of the downtown core undamaged. Truly a minor miracle and a testament to the hard working fire crews.
Every disaster has its share of good news stories, but this one, I think, exceeds any I’ve seen in all my years on this bit of dirt.
In 24 hours a city of 80,000 was emptied in a relatively orderly way, with no fatalities. Many had only a few minutes to get out of town, so people grabbed what they could, loaded up kids, spouses, pets, and whatever other animals they could get to and headed out on one of the two main highways – north or south depending on which side of the fire they were on.
Few had a chance to gas up or assemble necessities, so good Samaritans patrolled the roads offering gas, water, food, whatever was needed to the thousands whose entire lives had been reduced to what they carried in their cars and trucks.
Offers of rooms, apartments, and houses flooded in from cities and towns within a few hours’ drive. Fort Mac is a city largely made up of transients working in the northern oil sands, so many just went back ‘home’. But for those who stayed, all are now accommodated somewhere and contributions of food, toys for the kids, clothing, and other basic life necessities just keep coming.
At last count Canadians had contributed nearly $50 million to the Red Cross in disaster relief. The federal government is matching those contributions dollar for dollar. Other charities are also seeing their coffers filled to overflowing.
And then there are the fire crews and first responders. Coming from across the country the firefighters, aircrew, and support staff worked countless hours trying to direct the fire away from residential areas and to save as much of the city as they could even while, in some cases, their own homes were being consumed.
It will be a long time before Fort McMurray returns to its pre-2016 condition, but one thing that will be remembered is the fact that when faced with a disaster of this magnitude people came together no matter what their colour, religion, language, or political affiliation, to support fellow citizens who were hurting.
And that makes me believe that in spite of the daily deluge of bad news, there is still a glimmer of hope for mankind.