Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfire leave The Expo Center May 4 after receiving bedding supplies in Edmonton, Alberta. The entire population of Fort McMurray has been evacuated because of the wildfire. CNS photo/Dan Riedlhuber, Reuters

Fort McMurray residents left everything behind but each other

  • May 6, 2016

Although flames destroyed much of Fort McMurray, a resident found comfort in how the emergency united the community, even as fleeing people left everything behind but each other.

“This week everyone came together like one person. Every human became one,” said Jules Ohelo, a resident of the city for the past nine years. “People were actually taking care of each other."

Some areas of Fort McMurray have reportedly seen up to 80 per cent of homes damaged from the fire that began May 3. By May 6, as the fire expanded to cover 100,000 hectares, provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec offered support in the form of personal and equipment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on May 5 that the federal government would match donations made to the Canadian Red Cross for the relief effort.

But for Ohelo, it is the efforts of the Fort McMurray locals which stand.
“Strangers were offering each other rides; you never see that in Fort McMurray,” he said.

He said that typically in Fort McMurray, where the population has more than doubled in the past two decades thanks to the oil industry, people are more focused on their jobs than their neighbours.

“People are always work, work, work but the way that everyone came together,” he said, “it was like there was actual faith. You'd see people actually helping each other.”

Unlike many who waited to be told to leave, Ohelo decided to move his family to safety before a mandatory evacuation notice was issued.

“I was getting off work on the smoke was just getting really bad,” said the delivery driver, who finished work around noon that day. “It was like the biggest rain was coming (and) you couldn't breath. That is when we decided to hit the highway to go and get my kids.”

The couple, who rent in a neighbourhood north of the Athabasca River, tried heading south towards the downtown area, where his children attend school and his mother lives.

“But I was told to go north,” he said adding that the bridge spanning the river had already been closed. “We couldn't get to my kids in time.”

So the two packed a number of neighbours into their vehicle and headed north to the Noralta Lodge, praying all the way that his loved ones would escape to Edmonton, where family friends live.

Ohelo, a Pentecostal originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, isn't the only one who was separated from his family during the evacuation, which displaced about 80,000.

When Father Turcotte Elementary School fell under an evacuation notice a number of children and staff, including principal Lisa Hilsenteger, were still inside.

“We had all these children,” some of who have special needs Hilsenteger said according to the National Post. “I started to hesitate. You feel like you are breaking the rules.”

Hilsenteger, who was separated from her own child, loaded 15 students and some basic supplies onto a yellow bus to join a convoy of evacuees.

“There's nothing more terrifying than to be in a crisis and not have your children with you.”

All of the students, Hilsenteger and Ohelo were eventually reconnected with their families.

“God tests people always. This is like a test,” said Ohelo, who believes the home where his mother lives is significantly damaged.

“It is a tragedy. Seeing (our city) destroyed is almost like God is testing us.”

Check out our other stories on the wildfire at Fort McMurray:

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