As I drove into Calgary late last week, the first thing that caught my attention was people streaming toward a small lemonade stand. Pedestrians were making a beeline and cars were stopping along the street, drivers exiting and jogging toward the stand. The attraction, of course, was not so much the lemonade as the sign indicating that all proceeds would be directed toward the emergency in Fort McMurray via the Red Cross.
Not surprisingly, the raging and devastating fire was the focus all around the city. On Saturday, a group of Kensington residents set up a lemonade stand and bake sale, again with all proceeds destined for Calgary’s northerly neighbours. In a book store I heard a clerk encouraging patrons to go over to make their donations. Everywhere I went I overheard snippets of conversations talking about the fire and how people could help.
It was a refreshing change from earlier in the week when CBC Radio broadcast a number of interviews of Fort McMurray residents, who were angry and looking for someone to blame at the chaos that was inevitable as 80,000 residents streamed from the area to escape the danger. Why weren’t more roads constructed with emergency escape in mind? (This from people who typically resent every cent of taxes they pay, and who would gladly take to the streets to stop any talk of a provincial sales tax to fund their financially strapped government.) Why wasn’t the Canadian military called in at the first signs of emergency? (Failing to remember that most of our military is no more prepared to fight fires than you or I, or that logistics get a little complicated when billowing clouds of smoke make flight dangerous and even impossible.) Where were Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? (In this most conservative of all Canadian provinces many were happy to blame the whole mess on Liberals and New Democrats.)
Anger and frustration are to be expected when people and their property are threatened, though, and who could fail to feel sympathy for those who had to pack up with short notice and set out for Anywhere, Alta., only to be unable to fuel up their vehicles or find a safe escape route?
Now, with the evacuation behind them and knowledge that emergency services have been handled extraordinarily well, more focus has been placed on the positive. Once again, firefighters are getting credit for their incredible commitment to their communities and the good deeds of ordinary citizens, like the guys who set up a truck at the entrance to Lac la Biche and offered free gasoline and water to those who were arriving from Fort McMurray, were getting the attention they deserve. The news is as full of footage at emergency shelters all around the province as it is with photos of the conflagration.
As I write this a report flashes up on the television screen — more than $60 million has been donated to the Red Cross, funds that will be matched by tax dollars. I have just received an email from my teacher friend Patti to let me know that her elementary school has 50 new students this morning, all of whom are staying at the nearby University of Calgary with their families. “Can take up to 127 students until we are packed. Lot of changes in timetable, resources etc. Should be interesting. Feels like a good thing to do,” she writes. Yesterday she sent me a similar message of hope. One of her Grade 1 students had spent the weekend running her own lemonade stand to raise money for the Red Cross. She raised $500, which her mom then matched. That donation will be matched by government money, too. “Another good citizen in the making,” I responded.
This is the third enormous disaster Alberta has faced in recent years, preceded by the Slave Lake fire and the floods that roared through Calgary, High River and other communities. There is no need for irony as one considers that this is a hotbed of climate change deniers, and one need only look one province to the east to find another dinosaur premier in charge. And social media have been peppered with cruel and ignorant comments about petroleum-driven communities like Fort McMurray, as if they, and not the consumers of the stuff — which includes each and every one of us — are to blame.
We are in for some interesting times, as Patti says. But for now we should take some time to thank the countless people who rise to the occasion in any emergency, and acknowledge that none of our communities are immune.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.