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Evacuees find food, comfort on the road from Fort McMurray

It might be the first time the tiny community of Grassland, Alta. has seemed like an oasis. But that's precisely what it's become for many of the thousands of people fleeing the wildfire of Fort McMurray.

'These are our people. They come through here everyday,' says resident of tiny, helpful community

Evacuees find sanctuary in Grassland, Alta.

5 years ago
1:08
The tiny community welcome evacuees fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfire 1:08

It might be the first time Grassland, Alta. has seemed like an oasis.

But that's precisely what the northern hamlet has become for many of the thousands of people fleeing Fort McMurray.

For those running from the forest fire that threatens to burn their homes to the ground, the hospitality found here — about 226 kilometres to the southwest, more than halfway to Edmonton — is like cool water on a parched throat.

Roxanne Power is one of thousands who found sanctuary after a long night on the road.

"It was very hard. We spent the night on the side of the road in Wandering River," another small community to the north, she said. 

"It was chaotic." 

A seemingly endless line of cars stretches as far as the eye can see down the highway towards Fort McMurray. Power said the ferocity and speed of the fire that chased them here caught her by surprise.

"Coming up through downtown was very difficult, heart wrenching to see the fire was everywhere, it was not a good scene," she told CBC News. 

Freezing, damp and horrible

Kelsey Saunders and her family are also on the move after spending a long, cold night in tents by the side of Highway 63. 

"It was freezing and damp and horrible, absolutely horrible," Saunders said. 

Saunders hopes her home in Fort McMurray survives but, after witnessing the flames up close last night, and with more hot, dry weather forecast, she has her doubts.

"It was just black smoke and flames," she said. "The sun was red, everything was covered in black, just horrible."

In Grassland they have found the basics: food, fuel, shelter and water. They have also found a community exhibiting a single-minded determination to help.

Roann Baldry, a teacher at the nearby school, helped to organize a buffet, beds and even childcare for the kids stranded here — managing it all in just hours

Roann Baldry of Grassland, Alta. welcomes evacuees fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfire. (Erin Collins/CBC)

She stands on the side of the highway holding a big sign that reads, "Welcome evacuees — food, shelter." 

"First thing this morning the texts flew furiously — what do we need to do? What do we need to pick up?" she said. 

Baldry said there is a simple reason why the hamlet reacted so quickly.

"These are our people. They come through here everyday. We see them on the road everyday and to see them having to leave their homes. So many people. It's just heartbreaking for us."

And it's not just the people fleeing Fort McMurray that Baldry and her neighbours are helping. They managed to find some dog food for the four-legged evacuees as well.

It is a kindness that does not go unnoticed by the people stranded here waiting for fuel, food and news.

For them it makes a nearly unbearable situation manageable.

Vehicles fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfire move through Grassland, Alta. (Erin Collins/CBC)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.

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