Fort McMurray wildfire: Tiny hamlet absorbs, helps hundreds of fire evacuees
A tiny hamlet south of Fort McMurray has swelled to nearly four times its population after taking in hundreds of wildfire evacuees.
Wandering River is approximately 200 kilometres south of Fort McMurray and normally has a population of 100 people. But more than two weeks ago, it absorbed hundreds of families as they fled the wildfire.
“We’re the closest community to Fort McMurray,” said Dan Coonan, the principal of Wandering River School.
“We were one of the first areas that saw evacuees coming in so the numbers went up quickly and significantly over a number of days afterward.”
Brenda Baker fled Fort McMurray Tuesday, May 2 and arrived in Wandering River early Wednesday morning.
Baker and her husband escaped the city with only the clothes on their backs and the key to their camper in Wandering River. The couple normally spends the May long weekend in the hamlet and saw it as a place of refuge.
“We knew at that moment, okay we have this [camper]. It’s our own. It’s a sense of normalcy,” she said.
“We go there and perhaps we’re hoping it would die down before this. We thought it would be over but no it hasn’t.”
Baker said the community immediately reached out to her, her husband as well as her sister, daughter and niece who are all staying in a Wandering River campsite. She said residents came by their campground asking if they needed supplies, gasoline or other assistance.
“I get so emotional thinking and talking about it. We are beyond grateful and so proud of this little hamlet,” she said.
Now, Baker, who is an educational assistant for the Fort McMurray Public School Board, is volunteering at the Wandering School River.
“That’s the least I can do to give back, to help out,” she said.
“We don’t know how … to give back. This is just some small token that I can do.”
Coonan said that, before the fire, the tiny school of Kindergarten to Grade six had an enrolment of 27 students – now it has nearly tripled.
He brought in an extra teacher, educational assistant and school bus to pick up students who are spread out across the various campsites near Wandering River.
“Parents felt, after the first day their kids came here, you could see the relief on their faces. The kids responded positively to it. Obviously there were some anxious people. It all turned out well. They fit in seamlessly,” Coonan said.
Paula Fudge, the organizer of the unofficial donation centre in Wandering River, said the generosity of the community has been overwhelming.
A large building at a work camp near Wandering River has become the hub for donations and evacuees, and it is filled with donations of water, toothpaste, shampoo, diapers, baby food and clothing.
“It’s probably overwhelming for them to have so many people in town but they’ve been great about it. Anybody I’ve talked to in Wandering River has been very supportive,” Fudge said.
Councillor Jack Dowhaluk said the county is looking at a way to provide long-term housing to evacuees.
“We realized it was a tragedy for them. But as a county, we have so much to offer. We welcome these people here. We want them as neighbours,” he said.
Coonan said the response from Wandering River shows it is a little hamlet that can pull its weight.
“A lot of people have known us as a gas station and a place to grab a bite to eat on the way up or the way down to Fort Mac. [They] didn’t realize maybe all the things that we do offer in the community,” he said.
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