As flames tore through much of Fort McMurray, one resident found comfort in how the emergency united the community, even as fleeing people left everything behind except each other.
“This week everyone came together like one person. Every human became one,” said Jules Ohelo, a resident of the city for the past nine years. “People were actually taking care of each other.”
The efforts of the Fort McMurray locals are what stand out for Ohelo.
“Strangers were offering each other rides; you never see that in Fort McMurray,” he said.
Typically in Fort McMurray, where the population has more than doubled in the past two decades as people flocked west to find employment in the oil industry, people are more focused on their jobs than their neighbours.
“People are always work, work, work, but the way that everyone came together, it was like there was actual faith. You’d see people actually helping each other,” he said.
Unlike many who waited to be told to leave, Ohelo moved his family to safety before the mandatory evacuation notice was issued May 3.
“I was getting off work and the smoke was just getting really bad,” said the delivery driver, who finished work around noon that day. “It was like the biggest rain was coming (and) you couldn’t breath. That is when we decided to hit the highway to go and get my kids.”
Ohelo and his wife, who live north of the Athabasca River, tried heading south toward the downtown area, where his children attend school and his mother lives.
“But I was told to go north,” he said, adding that the bridge spanning the river had already been closed.
“We couldn’t get to my kids in time.”
So the two packed a number of neighbours into their vehicle and headed north to the Noralta Lodge, praying all the way that his loved ones would escape to Edmonton, where family friends live.
Ohelo, a Pentecostal originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was eventually reconnected with his family.
“God tests people always. This is like a test,” said Ohelo.
“It is a tragedy. Seeing (our city) destroyed is almost like God is testing us.”