“In the morning on May 3, we were having a social for my wife’s birthday. It was a beautiful morning with clear skies and no discernible smoke in the air. But that changed very quickly as the inversion holding the smoke down overnight lifted and the winds picked up. In a matter of about an hour we went from getting concerned about the heavy smoke to getting word to get out NOW! We packed a bit of important stuff and got ready to leave, joining the lineup of vehicles getting out.”
That’s how George Holthof, part-time pastor of Evergreen, the only Christian Reformed Church in Fort McMurray, Alberta, describes his experience as raging wildfires threatened the city and surrounding areas, forcing nearly 90,000 people, including Holthof and his wife, to leave home under mandatory evacuation orders. In the blink of an eye, wrote one Edmonton Journal commentator, tens of thousands of Albertans became refugees in their own province, on the road and on the run. Social media and national television streamed surreal images of a long line of vehicles bumper to bumper on the only major highway out of town – some driving north and some south – alongside dramatic walls of flames. Apocalyptic is one word many people used to describe it.
The Holthofs were initially ordered to go to an evacuation centre north of the city.
“When we got to that location, 25 km north of town, we were turned away and advised to go further north to another camp. We headed that way but couldn’t find it, so we pulled off the highway, drove down to the river and joined a bunch of other people and we all camped out for the night.” They finally made it out safely the next day, heading to their daughter and son-in-law’s home in Shilo, Manitoba. As this story is being written, they were on their way to family in eastern Ontario.
“As far as I know, Evergreen folks have all made it out to one place or another,” reported Holthof. “We are scattered everywhere! . . . Edmonton, Athabasca, Boyle, Lac la Biche – literally scattered all over the place. We are kind of like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ – except we have the Good Shepherd looking out and looking after us.”
Help pouring in
While the entire country watched the Fort McMurray situation with horror and astonishment, there were many stories of generosity, stories of ordinary people stepping up to offer assistance in a myriad of ways. Convoys of citizens with trucks full of gas, food and water set out to help evacuees stranded along the highway. Some even remembered to include diapers and pet food. Oil companies opened their work camps. First Nations opened their campgrounds and communities. The Edmonton Expo Centre opened its doors. Calgary opened evacuation centres. People in Edmonton and Calgary and towns in-between offered rooms in their homes. The Canadian government announced it would match donations made to the Canadian Red Cross. World Renew announced a long-term response. The Christian Labor Association of Canada (CLAC), with 600 members, staff and their families who live full-time in Fort McMurray, offered to match all donations up to $500,000 to support those affected by the Fort McMurray fires.
In Edmonton, The King’s University also opened its doors to evacuees.
“By Saturday afternoon,” explained Facilities Coordinator, Lynda Koot, “King’s had filled everything that was available. We had taken in families as well as single people. There has been a large outpouring of support from the King’s community to help. We have a list of people more than willing to provide accommodations to people in need, once they can no longer stay on campus. We have people willing to help us clean the suites and apartments. Donations of money and gift cards came in. Volunteers provided baking and meals. It was truly heartwarming.”
“So much is still unknown for the people of Fort McMurray,” reflected Koot. “Some will have the ability to return home once the city’s main infrastructure is in place, and for some, the sad reality will be of not having a home to return to. Everyone’s story will not be the same, and everyone’s needs will not be the same, but if through all of this King’s can continue to show God’s light and love in any way, then that is what we will do.”
“It is sounding like we will not be going home to Fort McMurray for some weeks,” concluded Holthof, “perhaps a couple of months. I think we are seeing and experiencing our faith as an anchor in uncertain times – and seeing the blessings and love of God in surprising ways.”
Pastor George Holthof snapped this photo while leaving Fort McMurray.
Once the fire is out, firefighters will scan for underground “hot spots” to prevent future flare-ups.
Fort McMurray residents rest in Anzac, Alberta after evacuation.
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