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“What can I do to help?” A first-hand account from Fort McMurray

Rev. David Greenwood works for Syncrude north of Fort McMurray and shared his experience during the fires with PWRDF. Photo: Anglican Messenger

May 11, 2016

By David Greenwood

Editor’s note: The following is a first-hand account of the Ft. McMurray wildfires written by the Rev. David Greenwood, a priest in the Diocese of Athabasca and brother of PWRDF Diocesan Representative, Dorothy Marshall (Diocese of Edmonton). PWRDF thanks David for graciously agreeing to have PWRDF share his testimony publicly. It has been edited for length.

My name is David Greenwood, and I am an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Athabasca, where I serve as an honorary assistant to the parish of All Saints in Fort McMurray. I am also a Sr. Systems Advisor for the Human Resources department of Syncrude Canada Ltd. and I am a husband, father of four great kids (who each married, so I now have 8 great kids) and, at present, five grandchildren.

And over us all, of course, is God. In other words, I’m a person just like you, doing what I think God wants me to, as best as I can.

[As a result of the wildfire] I lost everything — which is true, and which is false. You see, I have found there are many degrees of ‘lost everything.’ The clothes I am wearing are all that I have had for the past week; all that I left the house with. So, emotionally and literally all I had WERE the clothes on my back. But literally as opposed to emotionally, I still have my house, with all my belongings in it — which I may not be able to get back into for about a year, and which is basically worthless financially now.

While all I had with me for the past week was this one set of clothes, I knew my wife was safe, for she was in Toronto on a field trip with students from her school. I knew my kids were all safe, for they had grown up and moved away. And I knew that I, indeed all of us, we’re with God. Others though, even though they had been able to pack a bunch of stuff, they totally lost their homes — and for many people, that is very hard to take.

We knew there were fires about — Monday night water bombers had been going over where I live because of a fire just in the north of the city which they successfully put out. I was told there was another fire four km to the south that they were also working on.

That night I was at Compline with a good friend. We prayed, and I felt led to say, “no one will be harmed because of these fires.” It was a statement for which I had no factual competence to say.

For me, the fire experience started shortly after noon on Tuesday [May 3, 2016]. I worked in downtown Fort McMurray, and a co-worker showed me a picture of a wall of smoke with an orange tinge to it from the flames, behind trees on a hill. I asked, “Where did you get that picture?” And she said, “I just took it right behind us.”

Running out, I saw for myself: looking up at the valley hilltop to an area known as Abasand you could see a ridge of trees, and behind them the sky was filled with billowing clouds of smoke, orange and yellow at the bottom and sooty grey at the top.

I burst out laughing. And I thought, “Well, this is exciting!”

We left work, with the idea that we could pack up and get ready to evacuate, just in case things got bad. I felt confident though that we’d be okay — the fire was on this side of the Athabasca River, my house on the other. The river valley was about a kilometre wide. I really expected we’d be fine.

Getting home around 3:00 p.m. I filled the bathtubs with water to drink from in case there were problems with the water supply. I took our will out of the freezer, grabbed our passports, and was starting to pile up what I thought would be useful on the kitchen counter. I received a note from my friend Fr. Christopher, who was uncertain what to do. I said I would be right over and that he and his family could stay at my house until this blew over. Leaving everything on the counter, I drove the 5 minutes to his place. Heading back to my house, we hit gridlock on the main road. The Mounties were directing traffic and made me turn right instead of left, saying I’d have to take the long way home.

I’m still taking it.

[With roads and highways south blocked,] north we went, towards the work camps. Along the way we met some more friends, sitting by the side of the road. They joined us, and now we were a three-vehicle convoy.

We got into [the Syncrude operation] around 10:00 p.m. It had taken us about six hours to go 40 km. Fr. Chris and his family got one room, my friends, the Booths and I a second. Each room had a single bed with a mattress but no bedding, and a chair.

By 1:30 that morning, we were in our rooms. I slept on the floor for about four hours.

The next day I asked my Syncrude boss what I could do to help. I have some IT experience, so my first task was to set up a hotline for people to call into. After that was set up, over the next 44 hours the people staffing that line answered about 1,400 calls representing about 25% of the Syncrude workforce.

My next task was to set up a process to capture information from those who called and wished to return to work (to help out in any way they could), and fed it to the business areas. Those two tasks occupied my attention to about 10:00 p.m. on Friday.

I had also been asked to wear my ‘other hat’ as they called it, and visited the people who were there, especially trying to help those who were in a highly anxious or agitated state. I thought of myself as the ‘resident listener.’

For the most part, people were living in what I would describe as a surreal existence. We knew the fire was there, but most people didn’t have time to think about it. People were surviving on four to five hours of sleep a night, getting it wherever they could. Food was always short so you scrounged what you could, where you could.

So, you were tired, and you were hungry — not a good recipe on any day. However, you were in the same boat as everybody else. It was amazing how overall, morale was actually quite high. People were focusing on putting one foot in front of another, doing whatever they could to help out, regardless of what was asked.

I needed help with doing the tasks I was assigned, so I called in friends who willingly came and helped — one person was actually planning to leave on Wednesday. When I asked her for help, she looked at me with a considering and very tired look, and said, “Okay, just let me get my family on a plane, okay? Then I’ll come help.”

We couldn’t have made it through this without sacrifices like that.

I was setting up a church service for this Sunday since there would be nothing available in town (first one ever on site, I’m pretty sure). The idea was enthusiastically adopted by all I heard from. I received an e-mail about it from a person who I hadn’t talked about it with, who said it was a great idea. He’d talked to ‘the Catholics’ and they were on board. He wanted my picture and bio to post and let people know it was going on. He had also set something up for the Muslims. When I asked if he himself would like to help with the service, he burst out laughing and replied, “Not unless you want it to be a Mormon one!” Everyone was pulling together, regardless of their backgrounds.

Some things weren’t helpful. The media reports were confusing, contradictory, and kept bombarding you with bad news. In some ways, I think this experience was harder on my wife and kids, who just had the media, and then me in the middle of it. Evidently our house was burned (and unburned) three or four times. Our hospital and the high school where my wife worked were burned down, then they weren’t. And the constant stream emphasizing how terrible everything was just bombarded already worried people with stress. That wasn’t helpful.

The decision to ask people to come back wasn’t made in some head office in New York or Houston or Toronto. The leaders of Syncrude also live there — some of them also lost their homes, none of them could go back, and all of them were surviving on minimal sleep. Yet, the conversation I heard from them consistently was, “We have to get this back up and running. We have to make sure we’re generating an income not only for our employees to rebuild, but also for those across the country who depend on us for their livelihood.”

There were two fatalities, in a car accident. But for the approximately 80,000 evacuees, from the fire directly there was not one injury except, I have been told, a sprained ankle. I think that’s a real miracle for other than that, no one was harmed in the fire.

Thanks be to God.

I want to remember the funny things. As we were tired, we were getting punchy. On day two I asked my co-worker, “How come my clothes stink, but I don’t?” And then we killed ourselves laughing.

To keep them as fresh as possible, I would wash my shirt and underwear in a sink each night and then hang them on the air conditioner to dry. The next morning, they would be slightly damp, but okay. The last night, I was awakened after an hour and told we were evacuating. Can you imagine putting on soaking wet socks, shirt, and underwear for what would turn out to be 11 hours, 10 of them in a truck? And the smoke! It was like thick fog. I could only see about 20-30 metres.

And I want to remember the love. Not sentimental, Valentine’s Day love. I didn’t see any of that. Rather, I saw what I think of as ‘real love:’ The executives worried for their employees’ future. The people who told me, “I’ve lost everything — but we’ll bounce back.” The friend who sent her family off without her so she could stay behind and help. The man who was in tears because he had lost his home, everything he owned, had left, then had come back because he’d been asked to come help — only now to be told that, “Sorry, we’re evacuating everybody.” The people who embraced the idea of a worship service so they could help those in need. The firemen and women who sacrificed themselves to save peoples’ homes. The friend who had been evacuated and was now getting the full onslaught of the media — and echoing in her love and distress the cries of all those Psalms: “Why, oh God?’ How long, oh God?” Praying for us constantly. All of them — they were all tired, all hungry, all overworked — and yet they still put one foot in front of another, did whatever they could, and continued to ask, “What can I do to help?”   That, for me, is what it really was all about: the love.

David and his wife have been reunited and are staying with their son in Ft. Saskatchewan.

You can support PWRDF’s relief efforts in Alberta:

You can designate your online donation for “Fort McMurray wild fire”.              

By Phone:
For credit card donations contact:
Jennifer Brown
416-924-9192 ext. 355; 1-866-308-7973
Please do not send your credit card number by email or fax.

By Mail:
Please make cheques payable to “PWRDF”, mark them for “Fort McMurray wild fire” and send them to:
The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund
The Anglican Church of Canada
80 Hayden Street
Toronto, Ontario  M4Y 3G2

 PWRDF Donations Contact:
Jennifer Brown
416-924-9192 ext. 355; 1-866-308-7973

 PWRDF Humanitarian Response Coordinator:
Naba Gurung
416-924-9199 ext. 321;  1-866-308-7973

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