The arrival of Syrian refugees and the Fort Mac fire were certainly two of the most riveting stories in Canada this year.
In the thick of both narratives is the ongoing relief effort by the Canadian Red Cross – and in the midst of those stories are firsthand accounts by two local women. One volunteered to help settle newcomers from the Middle East and the other, re-settle thousands affected by the devastating Alberta fire.
Their Red Cross journey began two years ago when both were called upon to assist with a local emergency response.
Most run the opposite way when they hear “fire.” But Helen James and Marie Salgado-Lee?
They ran toward it, and ran without fear.
The ladies chuckle when they reminisce about that first call out as a Red Cross disaster management unit. They were summoned to the Rock Creek wildfire back in August 2015, at the time, both were still very new to the organization.
“By the time we got the call, packed the cars and drove out there, everyone had been accommodated and there was no place for us,” Salgado-Lee recalled. “So we slept in the ditch at Midway,” she laughed.
“We laid out out thermal rests and sleeping bags and slept in our clothes between the two cars for protection – when we woke up there was smoke everywhere.”
The volunteers began training with the Red Cross earlier that spring so this was their first real-time test with a mobile team of four, which includes Salgado-Lee’s husband Brent and retired RCMP Sgt. Rob Hawton
The atmosphere was eerie, Salgado-Lee admits, but they choked through the smoke and got on with the service work at hand.
“When you looked up in the evening, you saw a glow, and it kind of felt like, ‘Are we trapped here?’” Salgado-Lee said. “We were surrounded by fire everywhere, but then you just start doing your thing and you kind of forget about it, it’s actually kind of exciting.”
As part of Red Cross disaster management, tasks vary from organizing relief efforts like meal provision, to face-to-face meetings with victims to provide information about services available. In this situation, the team assisted regional agencies with the logistics to evacuate up to 6,000 people living in the Grand Forks and Christina Lake area because another wildfire, called the Stickpin fire, was burning out of control a few kilometres south of the Washington border. The reality was with such a dry climate and strong winds, embers could jump across the border and quickly envelop the two Boundary communities.
Red Cross volunteers during the Rock Creek fire
That didn’t end up happening, thankfully. But when the crisis finally ended as fall weather set in, James continued her work in Rock Creek by serving on the “Unmet Needs Committee” for another five months. That was part of the organization’s recovery phase, which included distribution of Red Cross funds donated directly to the Rock Creek effort.
“Our team got a lot of experience, very quickly,” she said.
Nine months later, James faced an even bigger test of her fortitude.
On May 3, the behemoth known as the Fort Mac fire broke out with a vengeance – 80,000-plus people were forced to flee the city, many with just the clothes on their back. Social media blew up with surreal videos and photos of evacuees so close to the flames it is a wonder that no one was severely injured or killed by fire.
In fact, that is Helen’s takeaway from the disaster of such magnitude – so many lost their homes and belongings, but the fire itself did not take a human life (notably two young people were killed in a car accident during the evacuation).
“That’s one of the biggest things, is that everyone got out of there,” she said. “It is phenomenal that they all got away from that inferno.”
Helen’s Red Cross position came weeks later when certain workers and families were allowed to return to the city.
In all, she spent five weeks in Fort Mac helping residents resettle during the Red Cross recovery stage.
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