Calgary

Fort McMurray fire chief portrait to raise funds for rebuild

"This will be a gift from my family and my extended family to these brave men and women who put themselves in harm's way, many of whom lost their own homes, to protect us."

'These guys and girls are amazing, and we owe them our lives. There's no sugar-coating it'

Russell Thomas' original painting of Fire Chief Darby Allen will be gifted to the Fort McMurray fire department. Prints will be made available for sale, with all proceeds going to the United Way campaign for Fort McMurray. (Russell Thomas/Facebook)

"I had the shirt on my back, the flip-flops on my feet, and my paints in the back seat of the car. That's what I left with. It's totally ironic and beautiful at the same time."

Artist Russell Thomas was leading a painting workshop for the United Way at the Mark Amy Treatment Centre when the Fort McMurray fire began to take a turn for the worse. 

With the few possessions already in his car, he was forced to flee his burning community, without the chance to go back for his wife and two sons.

"The flames were in the rear-view mirror. I was shaking. I was crying, and I was getting further and further away from my family, which is a horrible feeling," he said.

Russell Thomas was reunited with his family on Thursday morning in Calgary. (Russell Thomas/Facebook)

'We owe them our lives'

Thomas, his wife and his two sons reunited in Calgary on Thursday morning.

Moved by gratitude, Thomas said he just "knew right away" that he had to paint fire Chief Darby Allen.

"These guys and girls are amazing, and we owe them our lives. There's no sugar-coating it," he said.

At the same time, Thomas' sister in Ontario — who is married to Chris Graham, the assistant deputy chief of emergency management working the scene in Fort McMurray — wanted to commission Thomas to paint a portrait of Allen so that she could gift it to the fire department.

"I said, 'You're not paying me. No.'

"This will be a gift from my family and my extended family to these brave men and women who put themselves in harm's way, many of whom lost their own homes, to protect us."

'We're going to rebuild'

Thomas said the original painting is "a symbol of courage and heart," and will be gifted to the Fort McMurray fire department.

He plans to make prints available for sale, with all proceeds going to the United for Fort McMurray campaign focused on rebuilding the community.

Thomas said he's "really optimistic" about the future of his city. 

"The people have responded in a way that is unlike anything we've ever seen before," he said.

"We're going to rebuild, and we're going to do it quickly, and we're going to do it mindfully, and we're going to do it with enthusiasm."


With files from Alberta@Noon

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