We were sent to [dorms] in the basement, where it’s child-friendly, where we have a bathroom. We’re so thankful that we were able to find this place. This is a safe zone for us.
Grace under fire
Over 65 days this past spring, the UAlberta community welcomed 1,200 Fort McMurray residents uprooted by a raging wildfire known as The Beast.
By BRYAN ALARY, BEV BETKOWSKI, BRIDGET STIRLING, MICHAEL BROWN and SCOTT LINGLEY
As winter gave way to spring in 2016, Alberta prepared for a bad fire season. The previous year had been rough, with nearly 1,800 wildfires consuming 500,000 hectares of brush and forest. Weeks into the 2016 season and coming off a major El Niño, things didn’t look any better.
“If one looks in the past, the last time we had a major El Niño was ‘97-‘98, and ‘98 was a very active fire year in Alberta,” U of A wildland fire scientist Mike Flannigan told the Fort McMurray Today on March 1. “The table is set; everything is primed for an early and active fire season.”
For a research institution like the U of A, the snowmelt means a return to the field for researchers who are there to study water quality, wildlife ecology, geology and more.
The forecast was so grim that in early spring the university started preparations for an emergency planning exercise in June—a rundown of roles and responsibilities should a wildfire threaten students or staff.
“We spent the week before [the evacuation] entirely looking at our own people—our researchers and our staff who were in Fort McMurray,” said Adam Conway, manager of the office of emergency management. “We thought we would have to support our folks in research disruptions—making sure they knew how serious the situation was, making sure they got out, assisting them with granting agencies about stopping their research. What we ended up having was a complete catastrophe.”
State of emergency declared
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, on May 1 declared a state of emergency localized to the Gregoire area. By the following day, it soon became apparent the university’s wildfire exercise couldn’t wait until later in the month. The Beast had other plans.
“On May 2, we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to move that up. We don’t like how this looks.’ That was Monday,” Conway said.
By Tuesday evening, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for Fort McMurray, precipitating the exodus of 80,000 people—with much of the traffic headed south to Edmonton and the official emergency reception site at the Northlands Expo Centre.
Naoufal Belmqeddem, a resident of Fort McMurray’s Timberlea subdivision, spent five hours in gridlock trying to leave the burning city. His wife, Soufia Tejjine, was eight months pregnant at the time.
“It was like a movie that you wouldn’t believe,” recalled Belmqeddem. “We had smoke and fire on both sides—huge flames on both sides—and we were in the middle and could feel the [heat] inside the vehicle. I couldn’t open the windows or nothing; my wife was having really hard problems breathing. I was really worried.”
That day, the university offered the city whatever help it could provide.
“On Tuesday, we asked the [City of Edmonton’s Office of Emergency Planning], ‘What do you need?’” Conway recalled. “And they said, ‘Nothing. We’re good. We’ve activated our plans.’”
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On May 4, the Alberta government declared a provincewide state of emergency as the fire grew to 7,500 hectares and burned in the city. Even though the university wasn’t an evacuee centre, Conway and his team told residence services that “if anyone shows up at Lister Centre, don’t turn them away.”
“We didn’t know that only 10 per cent of the community [was burning]. It looked like everything up to and including the hospital,” Conway said. “That’s what we were getting ready for—even as a province, that’s what we were getting ready for—a complete loss of the city. Everybody had to step up.”
The emergency saw the activation of the university’s crisis management team, a group of about 75 staff charged with overseeing the U of A’s response. The last two incidents that resulted in the team’s full activation were the HUB Mall shooting in 2012 and a fatality in 2014, also in HUB.
“The people who make up the university didn’t need to be asked; they stood up and started doing what they thought they might have to do,” said David Turpin, U of A president.
Lister Centre a “safe zone” for evacuees
That evening, the first evacuees started seeking refuge at Lister amid reports Northlands was filling up.
Some, like Brian Cruz and his family, were directed to campus unofficially by staff at a local hospital. Cruz, his wife and their two young children had just received a full check-up for irritated lungs after fleeing their home of nine years.
“Two social workers there were talking to us and asked us, ‘Where are you guys staying?’ ‘We’re going back to Expo.’ The other social worker, the guy, he said ‘I know a place. Here’s the address. You guys go there.’”
Cruz and his family were among the first to arrive at Lister Centre.
When Dolores March, the university’s director of hospitality services, arrived for work the next day, there were already 80 new guests at Lister. That number would grow throughout the day as more evacuees were sent south across the river.
U of A staff mobilized across residence and ancillary services, facilities, hospitality, emergency management and university relations.
With so much attention focused on Lister and hospitality, March remembers sitting in an emergency response meeting and feeling overwhelmed.
“They were looking to me to make decisions, and I could just feel this fear, really, I was thinking, this is out of my scope. But you know, then I had this feeling of calmness come over me, and I thought, ‘OK. I can do this,’” said March.
Word spread quickly that Lister was taking Fort McMurray residents, with some evacuees phoning friends while they were still in line.
By 5 p.m., the university had activated its medical and mental health plans and established reception tables in the main hallway of Lister. Several tables staffed by nurses were set up for minor medical inquiries as evacuees arrived.
“Right away as people were arriving, they were just exhausted,” recalled Kevin Friese, assistant dean of students, health and wellness. “A lot of what we were doing was addressing very basic needs—people with respiratory issues or questions about sore eyes and things like that from smoke inhalation.”
A team of social workers, psychologists and chaplains were also mobilized throughout the building to help with mental health issues. They focused on the community centre set up in the dining room, where families and friends initially waited to be registered and received information about services available on campus and in the community.
“The majority of what we were doing was mingling—listening, talking and comforting. Treating people like people,” said Sheena Abar of the U of A’s community social work team.
By the morning of May 6, 180 evacuees had arrived on the U of A’s doorstep, yet the university was still not an official shelter. That total would continue to grow throughout the day as the city and university issued a joint statement saying the U of A would provide longer-term housing for people identified by emergency workers at Northlands.
“We got front desk staff ready, we got volunteer people, we checked people in, we brought them upstairs,” said Dolores March. “We had our HR lady who came up and made announcements and said numbers would be allocated, and we just started the process of checking people in.”
Residence and cleaning staff readied 657 rooms on Friday night alone.
“When we came in, the line wasn’t that bad,” recalled evacuee Tenai Musarurwa, who was 192nd in the queue. She and a friend had heard about Lister while applying for replacement passports after theirs had burned.
“I was given a number and we sat [in the dining hall] three, four hours waiting until I got a room. When I got into the room, it felt like paradise, I tell you. It felt so, so good to take a shower and just lie down on my bed. I slept like I didn't remember where I was.”
As evacuees arrived, the push continued to organize volunteers. Third-year political science student Evan MacDonald stepped forward on Friday and soon found himself recruiting other students, faculty and staff.
“We had over 100 volunteers within a few hours. It was nice to see everyone come together to help out their neighbours,” said MacDonald.
Friday was also when student services and residence services set up an emergency distribution centre in Lister Centre. The centre was a mini-warehouse of donated goods: toiletries, underwear, socks, laundry soap, hand sanitizer and other sundry items, the majority of which came from the Edmonton Emergency Relief Centre, which started making regular drop-offs.
“The first two days we had lineups. We tried to get people served as best we could,” said Frank Robinson, a researcher and former dean of students, who was there from the beginning.
By Saturday morning, 1,033 evacuees had been registered by Lister’s front-line staff. Many arrived with little more than the clothing on their backs. Some, like Tendai Musarurwa, lost everything to the fire, including her home in Fort McMurray’s Abasand neighbourhood.
“Everything I worked for was in that house. Now I’m left with a few things I picked up [at Lister] and a few things I managed to buy ... it’s like starting life all over again. All I had with me was my wallet.”
Sharing stories and raising spirits
Volunteers were often struck by their emotional encounters with evacuees, many of whom arrived in Canada seeking a better life. Communications staffer Bridget Stirling spent the morning greeting evacuees in the dining room—offering a warm hello, answering questions and making sure people used hand sanitizer.
“When I was there, a woman in bright robes and hijab walked in and threw her arms around me in a hug,” Stirling said. “She explained that she and her husband came to Canada a number of years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya. They’d adapted to life in Canada, learned to understand the bush in their life in northern Alberta—the strange animals and so many trees that were a little frightening but beautiful.”
The woman told Stirling that even though they loved and appreciated Canada, they always pictured themselves one day moving back to Kenya—not anymore. The experience of being welcomed and cared for made her realize that she is truly a Canadian now and this is home, said Stirling.
“She hugged me again, and we cried together a little. Two women born a world apart, brought together through caring and a hand sanitizer station, connected through our humanity.” —Bridget Stirling, staffer and volunteer
On Saturday, Cynthia Strawson decided to give up the entire main floor of her west-end home so a family from Fort McMurray—Cameron Wilson, Alie Warnes and seven-year-old daughter Isabel—could be close to Isabel’s new school in Edmonton. She’d connected with the family through social media and offered to meet that afternoon.
“When they called they said, ‘We’re actually literally driving up and down the streets in the community by the school just looking to see if there’s a sign in a window that says For Rent,’” said Strawson, director of advancement marketing. “I was like, I’m home now. If you’re free you might as well come on over.
“I showed them around the upper floor and said, ‘I’m going to move into the basement and you guys can have this upper floor. There’s three bedrooms, a bathroom and a full kitchen. It’s fine, stay as long as you need.’”
Wilson whispered to Warnes, “It’s a 13-minute walk to her school.”
“You could see the blackness of despair fly off them,” Strawson said, choking back tears at the memory. The next day, she rounded up seven helpers to move her stuff into the basement.
“I didn’t have money to give, but I had space. I had the ability to give them less worry. They had so much to worry about.”
On Sunday—Mother’s Day—David Turpin and his wife Suromitra Sanatani visited Lister to welcome evacuees.
“When we showed up we realized that a florist had provided a rose for every mother and another company had come forward with chocolates for every mother,” Turpin said. “Here we were, within hours of these people moving in, and the community, through grassroots support, had come forward and said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day and we know you’re going through a really tough time. Welcome to Edmonton, welcome to the University of Alberta, here’s a small gift to celebrate Mother's Day.’”
Staff barbecue raises $16,000 for Fort McMurray
With so many evacuees staying on campus, staff in university relations started talking about how they could do more. Internal communications director Anne Bailey and initiatives lead Darlene Bryant exchanged a flurry of emails over the weekend.
“Anne was sitting here and said, ‘What do you think about organizing a barbecue to benefit the Fort McMurray evacuees?’” said Bryant. “We had talked earlier in the week about having some kind of drive for hygiene products or clothes—we could have done any number of things—but we decided the barbecue would allow us to donate money directly to the Red Cross.”
In less than 24 hours, 100 volunteers signed up to help with the barbecue, to be held the next day, with Sysco Foods donating food. They planned for 1,000 people, but really had no way of knowing how many students and staff would show up, let alone the Fort McMurray families they planned to feed for free.
Over 1,500 showed up—such a strong turnout some staff hopped in a van midway through the event and picked up extra food to avoid running out.
David Turpin remembers running into a Syrian refugee student who had arrived on campus just a few months earlier.
“We supported him to come here as a refugee student, and there he was in the lineup to buy a hamburger and make a contribution,” Turpin said. “He said he knew what it was like to leave everything behind and wanted to do something in support of the people of Fort McMurray. You could see the wonderful positive cycle of generosity and reinforcement being reflected in that individual who, only months before, had been in war-torn Syria.”
The event raised $16,000 for the Red Cross, a sum matched by the provincial and federal governments and Scotiabank. Attendees also donated 90 boxes of goods for Edmonton Emergency Relief Services and the Edmonton Food Bank.
Critical mass at the Butterdome
With evacuees unable to work, the Alberta government launched a prepaid debit card program as a temporary financial lifeline. On Saturday, May 7, the university was informed the Butterdome would be the lone distribution centre for the Edmonton region, and would need to open in just two days.
Christine Legault, associate director of campus and community recreation, skipped Mother’s Day with her family to start preparations. On Monday, she sketched out a floor plan for how the Butterdome would handle the flow of applicants; the informal blueprint never made it to graph paper as it was put to immediate use by risk management services.
The recreation team put in a combined 108 hours setting up 250 feet of draping, 58 dividers, 102 tables and 450 chairs.
“We started at 8 a.m. and had everything set up by 8 p.m,” Legault said.
The university’s information services and technology crew laid 1.5 kilometres of cable wiring for about 50 workstations. Complicating matters, the team was still waiting for final approval of their plan as they did the work.
Parking staff managed to free up 1,800 parking stalls on any given day. It was no small job to juggle the influx of evacuee vehicles with those of staff, students and others using campus facilities, including young dancers renting the Myer Horowitz Theatre for their annual spring recitals.
“It was like the Butterdome Craft Sale on steroids,” said Randa Kachkar, associate director of parking services.
The first evacuees started lining up at 3 a.m. on May 11. To make the Butterdome lineups tolerable on a chilly morning, volunteers handed out cups of coffee, cocoa and snacks.
Keeping Lister healthy
Back in Lister, the lines had eased at the distribution centre, but Frank Robinson continued to help, often leveraging the army of contacts he’s amassed over 30 years at the U of A.
“We’d get requests from somebody who needed a car seat, so then I’d phone around and find a car seat. Or, I know we had some people in the building who had really tough circumstances, like this one girl who was having a baby in 10 days, so we were outfitting her with everything she needed.”
By May 10, 33 people in Lister Centre had reported gastrointestinal illnesses such as vomiting and diarrhea.
Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the U of A, said ailments like gastroenteritis and norovirus can spread quickly in close quarters through exposure to fecal matter. In Lister, families often used public washrooms, showers and dining areas, and didn’t have access to baby-changing stations.
To minimize the spread, handwashing and hand sanitization were more strongly encouraged. Residence services enacted enhanced cleaning and food service so guests wouldn’t serve their own food. Teams of Red Cross workers and volunteers went floor by floor to check on guests and distribute hydration kits and self-care info.
“You need to know what’s going on on the floors and get in quickly and ensure you have a really good handle on the health of individuals, because it can very quickly spread to an entire tower,” said Kevin Friese. “And the problem with gastroenteritis is you can get sick over and over again.”
For many expectant mothers, the evacuation added serious stress away from their regular specialists.
“From a pregnancy point of view, disasters have shown to have adverse effects on pregnancy. That was well shown after 9/11,” explained Jonathan Tankel, an obstetrician at the University Health Centre and Royal Alexandra Hospital.
Tankel volunteered to provide care for about half a dozen women, the majority of whom were in dire need of care.
“They knew that while they were here [in Edmonton] they had care through us, whether they remained in Lister Centre or not.” —Jonathan Tankel, obstetrician
From crisis management to human management
Fort McMurray families were given free access to U of A services such as libraries and the fitness centre—staff even donated 22 boxes of workout clothing and runners. Physical education students and alumni also sprang into action with the Fort McMurray Sports Day and barbecue on Saturday, May 14. It was one of several play-oriented events for families.
“You step out of your bubble of student life and when you help someone else, it really forces you to evaluate what is most important in your life. Sometimes, getting that A is not always the most important thing,” said kinesiology student and organizer Farhan Ahmed.
As the crisis evolved, many volunteers started to see their roles shift. Frank Robinson had been stationed at the distribution centre so often that people started calling it “Frank’s Store.”
“At the start it was more immediate crisis management. Later, it was about human management,” he said.
Robinson’s wife, Nancy, befriended several families while volunteering. One of those was Naoufal Belmqeddem and his wife Soufia Tejjine, who at 10:18 a.m. on Wednesday celebrated the birth of their daughter, Basma, whose name means “smile” in Arabic.
Knowing they were far from family in their native Morocco, Nancy went out of her way to help and even bought a baby gift.
“We tried to give them as good of a new parent experience as they could have. I don’t think it matches what they’d have experienced at home, but we went out of our way to help them find that excitement and joy.”
Elsewhere on campus, the Faculty of Engineering reached out to a key partner by welcoming 150 Syncrude employees displaced by the fire. Syncrude received whatever help it requested, said Peter Read, an alumnus and Syncrude’s vice-president of strategic planning.
“What we got from the U of A was above and beyond anything we imagined. Every time we inquired about something, the answer was 'Yes.’ And that will not be forgotten.”
The road home opens
On June 1, the province lifted its state of emergency and allowed the first wave of 15,000 Fort McMurray residents to go home. After working 14-hour days during the height of the crisis, Robinson started coming in less often as guests started to leave and emergency operations in Lister were handed over to the Red Cross.
“The one thing I hadn’t planned on getting out of this was getting to know people. There’s probably about a hundred people that I now know or know some of their situation,” said Robinson.
June 7 was the start of Ramadan, a blessed month for Muslims who fast from sunup to sundown to purify the soul. To accommodate a sizable Muslim population among evacuees, Lister’s dining hall was open after 10 p.m., and meals were specially ordered from a local restaurant that served halal meats. Additional space for prayer was created, and the Muslim Students’ Association led prayers in the gym on Fridays.
“When you’re trying to provide a home environment for people, and that's such an important piece for them, we thought that was entirely justified to make some adjustments to our regular operations and food services to accommodate Ramadan,” said Geoff Rode, director of operations with ancillary services.
Even though they were strangers before the fire, Cynthia Strawson said she was genuinely sad when it came time to say goodbye to Cam, Alie, Isabel and even Bugsy the guinea pig. It was hardest with seven-year-old ‘Izzy,’ as they often read together.
“They were so respectful and gracious. Izzy would leave me little presents. She gave me a balloon animal one time with a little note on it: ‘Thank you for giving us a place to live. I love you so much.’”
For Tendai Musarurwa, leaving Lister meant starting over. She arrived in Canada from Zimbabwe 16 years ago with just two suitcases of clothing—more than she now possessed. A phone call with her mother provided much-needed perspective.
“Mom said, ‘Who gave you everything you had? Everything that was in the house, who gave it to you?’ I said, ‘God gave it to me.’ ‘The same God that gave you what you had, he will give to you one hundredfold. He spared your life, that’s enough. That’s all you need.’”
“When you have people like that in your life who are positive, life goes on,” Musarurwa said.
By the end of June, just 139 evacuees were still living at Lister Centre, with most either returning home or finding long-term housing through the Red Cross. For some evacuees, the initial relief of finding a place at Lister gave way to fear about where they’d go next—fear that had to be carefully managed by the Red Cross and front-line staff.
“There was a very justified anxiety that people had about where they’d go, when they might go and whether or not they'd be forced to leave,” said Geoff Rode.
Though about a dozen people opted to remain in Lister until the end of Ramadan on July 7, most evacuees had left by the previous Sunday when the shelter officially closed. A brief quiet returned to Lister, before staff resumed preparing for the incoming crop of first-year students.
David Turpin said he’s proud of everyone who lent a hand—every unsung hero.
“The staff performed above and beyond any reasonable expectation.” —David Turpin, U of A president
“They stayed up all night registering the evacuees, getting them into rooms, supporting them, dealing with all the issues they would face having left everything behind,” he added. “There were a lot of unsung heroes.It was a real community effort to make this work, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of the University of Alberta community.”
By welcoming so many families, the U of A community grew in unexpected ways. After working 50 days in his “store,” Frank Robinson is grateful for the lasting friendships. It's a period in his life—in the university’s history—he will never forget.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve done in 30 years at the University of Alberta.”