Stories of heroism surface as Fort McMurray continues fire fight

[Strathcona Fire take a rest after fighting the Fort McMurray wildfire for 30 straight hours/Twitter]

There’s plenty of bad news from Alberta this week: 1,600 buildings destroyed, over 80,000 people forced to flee Fort McMurray and the surrounding area and 100,000 hectares burned by an uncontrollable wildfire.

But amidst the heavy losses in northern Alberta there have been stories of not just community support, but heroism. Some of those heroic efforts have saved lives and homes in Fort McMurray, the centre of the province’s oilsands industry.

Here are a few of the most striking examples of the heroism seen among the destruction in Alberta this week.

Firefighters: The stories of heroism from those fighting the fire firsthand probably won’t fully be known until their work is done. But a photo posted on Twitter by the Strathcona County fire department, which is working in Fort McMurray, provided some idea of what they are working through. The firefighters in the photo, taking a short break on a lawn, had been working for about 30 hours straight at that point, their deputy chief of operations told CBC News.

Animal rescuers: Many who had to leave Fort McMurray had no chance to return home to get their pets, resulting in many left behind in many neighbourhoods. Animal rescue operations, like everyone else, are unable to return to Fort McMurray yet in order to help pets that were left behind. But organizations across the country are working together to help those animals that did make it out of the city. The Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society and the Calgary Humane Society received more than 900 crates, which were sent out to evacuees in various locations who had pets with them. And Suncor — its camp hosted McMurrayites north of the city during evacuations — has flown people and their pets south.

Refugees: Some of the evacuees from Fort McMurray unfortunately have experience fleeing circumstances even more frightening. Refugees who arrived in Fort McMurray after leaving Syria during its ongoing civil war now in its sixth year found themselves on the run again, this time from the wildfire. Others in the city were once refugees from other countries like Somalia, and are now sheltered at mosques, evacuation centres and private homes elsewhere in Alberta.

But many people who have already had to exhibit their own heroism in leaving their homes and building a life in a new country are now mustering up more in order to help those displaced because of the fire. Refugee communities across the province have mobilized not just to help their own community but to collect supplies for anyone in northern Alberta in need of items like diapers, food and hygiene items.

Reporters: When the situation in Fort McMurray changed suddenly on Tuesday, it was imperative that information could reach tens of thousands of people quickly in order to ensure everyone knew about voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders. The work of local media in the city was a key part of making sure that could happen, even as reporters had to ensure they and their own family members could get out. 

A Facebook post by Harry Budgell credited Pete Potipcoe of Country 93.3 with providing breaking updates that helped evacuees leave the city safely. Others called out the work of local reporters at Fort McMurray Today in keeping the public informed both while the evacuation was underway and since having to leave the city themselves.

Rescue convoys: Ordinary citizens in Alberta are also working to help in Fort McMurray, from offering space in private homes and rentals to boarding pets and collecting supplies and donations for the displaced. Rescue convoys filled with essential items like gasoline, diapers, baby formula and food have been deploying since the evacuations began, reaching people stranded on highways and staying at evacuation centres, oilsands worker camps and First Nation reserves. Many have driven for a full day without rest, going back and forth to restock with supplies that have been donated and purchased by people in communities across the province.

Hospital workers: When the citywide mandatory evacuation order came on Tuesday, that included the patients and staff of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre. Staff at the hospital managed to remove all 105 patients, including long-term care patients and nine newborns with their mothers, in about two hours. They’ve continued working since the evacuation itself, caring for those patients who needed it in evacuation centres and helping to triage them for ground or air transport to other facilities.

RCMP: Mounties are among the first responders working in Fort McMurray, first to help citizens leave and now to find those who still refuse to — or are unable to — leave. Others are currently working to marshal a convoy of people travelling south from where they first evacuated north of the city. The RCMP hopes to move thousands south through the evacuated city along Highway 63, 50 cars at a time.

Some of those people still working in the city are unsure of the state of their own homes, and others know theirs are gone. “It makes a tough job harder,” Cpl. George Cameron, who is unsure if his home is intact, told the National Post.

Fort McMurrayites: And there has been plenty of heroism found among the city’s residents themselves, who left by the tens of thousands and almost completely avoided injury or loss of life. Lisa Hilsenteger is just one example, though perhaps the most striking to come out of the evacuation stories so far. The principal of Father Turcotte School in downtown Fort McMurray got students and staff in a school bus, first from her school to Timberlea High School in the city’s north. Then, picking up stragglers along the way the bus left the city and headed north to a camp hosting evacuees, then south again to her father’s home in Athabasca. All of the bus passengers were reunited with their families, either along the way or in Athabasca, as was Hilsenteger with her own husband and son.