One year ago, wildfires blazed through Fort McMurray and Alberta reducing homes, businesses, and much of the community to ash. Thousands of Albertans are still in the process of rebuilding their lives, but through it all, charities have been lending a helping hand.
Upwards of 80,000 people were evacuated from their homes, leaving everything behind them as they escaped with not much more than the clothes on their back. Photos and videos shared by residents captured harrowing getaways as Albertans escaped the inferno on highways bordered by raging wildfires that moved along with the wind. In total, more than 2,500 dwellings were burned to the ground and resulted in more than $3.6 billion worth of damage.
A total of 40 wildfires were burning by May 6. While brave firefighters and emergency crew workers worked around the clock to manage the wildfires, humanitarian aid was distributed to evacuees by charities and agencies on the ground. A year later, charitable organizations continue to respond to the needs of Albertans displaced by the disaster, including the Canadian Red Cross, the Edmonton Food Bank, the Edmonton Community Foundation, and the United Way of Fort McMurray.
The Canadian Red Cross
On the ground from the very beginning, the Canadian Red Cross was an integral part of immediate relief efforts as wildfires raged and individuals were frantically evacuated. A year later, the Canadian Red Cross continues to help those displaced and in need.
“Thanks to the support of our donors and our network of volunteers, the Canadian Red Cross began providing help almost immediately,” says Ronan Ryan, Chief Development Officer at the Canadian Red Cross. “We were able to support evacuees with clothing, shelter, and other necessities in the days and weeks following the disaster.”
As of April 2017, the Canadian Red Cross has provided transportation to 10,900 evacuees via plane or bus to reunite loved ones, and 54 community groups have been funded to help citizens recovery through specific community projects. A little over one week after the evacuation, the Red Cross announced $50 million in immediate financial assistance. In just one day, more than $30 million is sent to 28,000 households in need of help.
“The Red Cross is helping people recover from the disaster in three main ways,” says Ryan. “Through direct assistance for individuals and families, through community organizations and through the help we’re providing small businesses.”
According to Ryan, over one million donors responded to the Canadian Red Cross’ Alberta wildfires appeal by donating $189 million dollars in response to the crisis, which was then matched by the federal and Alberta government to total $323 million. A year later, 75 percent of the earmarked funds have either been spent or pledged, and plans to spend the remaining funds are in the works.
“The support from Canadians – really from people around the world – was incredible,” says Ryan. “From individuals to community groups to major corporations, the generosity shown was truly something special. Without that support, our work would not have been possible.”
Edmonton Food Bank
Over 430 kilometres away from the epicenter of the 2016 Alberta wildfires, the Edmonton Food Bank was also one of the first organizations on the ground to lend a hand to those in need. In the immediate aftermath of the fires, the Edmonton Food Bank provided 3,034 evacuees with food hampers while working alongside other community organizations such as the Salvation Army.
“We were able to provide most needed items and ship them out to affected communities within 24 hours,” says Marjorie Bencz, Executive Director of the Edmonton Food Bank. “Edmonton’s Food Bank is able to deploy warehousing and food support within hours, as needed, and we used this ability to support our neighbours during their time of need.”
Since 2015, the Edmonton Food Bank has experienced a 60 percent increase in the number of people needing assistance. In part, this is due to increasing economic challenges in the province, an increased number of new immigrants and refugees in Edmonton, and Fort McMurray evacuees now living in our community and needing assistance.
According to Bencz, however, the long-term effects of the wildfires goes beyond the physical destruction of Fort McMurray and surrounding Alberta communities. Members of the frontline response teams have also been affected by the disaster.
“Our staff and volunteer weathered a significant amount of physical and emotional stress,” says Bencz. “From our front line teams who provided hope, help, and food to displaced Fort McMurray individuals and families, to our drivers and warehouse team who collected, sorted food, and built hampers to accommodate our evacuated neighbours and provide aid to neighbouring communities who supported evacuees as well.”
Edmonton Community Foundation
According to Martin Garber-Conrad, Chief Executive Officer at the Edmonton Community Foundation, the foundation continues to help those affected as they too know of many individuals displaced and severely affected by the crisis even one year later.
“Our work is focused on the social-profit sector organizations, rather than on individuals,” says Garber-Conrad. “Many organizations there are still suffering from staff and volunteers displaced and/or who haven’t returned.”
With more than $1.3 million donated to the foundation’s fund to rebuild Fort McMurray, the Edmonton Community Foundation continues to help.
“While providing a few small grants for organizational needs that don’t fit other funders’ criteria, we are focusing our funding on capacity building and support for the emerging “backbone” organizations that are working to enhance the effectiveness of the social-profit sector,” says Garber-Conrad. “We are confident that this long-term approach will contribute to the health and functioning of the sector in Wood Buffalo’s future. We expect to make significant grants in the next few months.”
United Way of Fort McMurray
Right in the heart of Fort McMurray, the local United Way chapter experienced an unprecedented influx of support in the days following the disaster.
“The generosity of Albertans and Canadians was like nothing we had seen before,” says Russell Thomas, Director of Communications and Community Impact at the United Way of Fort McMurray. “We went from being the most generous community in Canada to being the recipients of the largest outpouring of generosity our nation has ever seen. By the fall, residents—despite the intense adversity brought on by the fire and the economy—were back to giving.”
According to Thomas, a total of $6.3 million was raised in response to the wildfires, and as a testament to the generosity of local residents, Thomas reports a large majority of that funding was donated by Wood Buffalo residents. As of April 2017, approximately $1.5 million has been spent, with plans to spend the remaining funds as residents work to rebuild their community over the next several years.
“We have also been working closely with community partners and the Canadian Red Cross to take a collaborative approach to the hard work of recovering from a disaster of this scope and scale,” says Thomas. “We are all in this together and know that rebuilding the social infrastructure and our community is going to take a number of years.”