Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees find outpouring of support in Lac La Biche
'There are no words to describe the hospitality,' says woman who was separated from family
When a major disaster strikes, everything changes.
The normal ebb and flow of life is disrupted both for the people impacted by the disaster and for those who rush to help.
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It is a truth that is easily discovered at the Bold Centre in Lac La Biche, Alta.
The centre, which normally houses a high school, library and recreation centre, is now home for hundreds of evacuees fleeing out-of-control wildfires in northern Alberta.
The transformation is striking, as mountains of clothing, food and toiletries now sit in what was, as recently as yesterday, a basketball court.
Farah Ahmad picks through a pile of clothing laid out on a long table in the gym. Ahmad fled Fort McMurray and was separated from her husband and children, an experience that has left her shaken.
"I have been crying on and off on and off and it is just hard."
It is why Ahmad is thankful there is more than just free clothing and hot coffee on offer at this shelter.
"There are no words to describe the hospitality, if they see you sitting down crying there are immediately five people around you offering assistance so kudos to Lac La Biche."
On the other side of the makeshift clothing store, volunteer Lorri Waine heaps more children's clothing on top of an already substantial pile. The latest offerings, still with the tags on them, was donated by a local family.
"They were at Costco getting things, and when people heard that what they were delivering was for the evacuees, people just started throwing things in from Costco, just to help out."
And help out they have.
People have arrived here with virtually nothing, looking for almost everything.
After leaving Fort McMurray, Darcy Steele drove through the night to get to Anzac, only to get another evacuation order. He arrived here in Lac La Biche on empty, physically and emotionally. Now Steele says he is now looking forward to refuelling.
"Collecting some supplies, looking forward to a hot shower, getting some food and hopefully some care for my cat — it is nice to be able to relax and get some fresh air."
Steele says he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support he has received as he has made his way south from Fort McMurray, a place he may never be able to return to.
"I don't even know if I have anything to go back to; I just have to play it as it comes, I suppose."
Amidst the chaos and noise of an evacuation centre bursting at the seams, Omer Moghrabi appears calm and in control. Strolling about the piles of donated items and checking on the evacuees' accommodations, the mayor of Lac La Biche County never doubted that his constituents would rise to this challenge.
Volunteer jobs filled
"We started on Tuesday and we have been rocking and rolling ever since our volunteers and our administration have been amazing."
So amazing that a sign at the entrance of the centre proclaims that no more volunteers are needed.
Outside in the parking lot, Sally Hamlin is coming around to the idea of calling Lac La Biche home again. Hamlin grew up here but had been living in Fort McMurray until the fire chased them south.
Escape vehicle hot, smoky
"The whole side of the vehicle was hot, just like melting. It was hot, smoky, scary and you didn't know where all of your family was."
And for Hamlin, the physical fear was just part of the struggle.
"You are lost — there is this feeling inside of you and you don't know what you are doing. You are just surviving, going on instinct."
An instinct that has driven Hamlin back to her hometown, where she is experiencing its hospitality with fresh eyes.