“See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” — James 3:5
The fires of Fort McMurray have catalyzed the world, and they have proven once again how large the heart of Albertans are at all times, but especially in moments of crisis. Over the coming months commentators will speculate on what could have been done better and on how to prevent future such catastrophes. They will inevitably draw comparisons to other fires: the Great Fire of London, 1666, where 70,000 out of the city’s 80,000 residents were left homeless; or the 2011 Great Slave Lake Fire in Alberta where the entire community of 7,000 residents were evacuated. In the end, however, what will be remembered are the tales of courage and compassion, celebrating the many who fought the fire, fled the inferno, assisted in housing the displaced, or who raised money and supplies to help.
We will remember the educators, like the principal at Father Turcotte School, who loaded a bus full of stranded students and fled the inferno all while liaising with anxious parents and guardians. We will remember the fire chief who led a campaign against “the Beast,” leading a team of gallant and exhausted firefighters, many of whom had themselves lost their homes. We will also remember the politician who called for unity rather than partisan politics, even as his home burned, and that only a year after he had lost his son.
Seneca the Younger, one of early Rome’s most famous philosophers, once said that “Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men,” and his words are proven true in the aftermath of this tragedy. Possessions are lost, but courage prevails. The scale of the tragedy is enormous, but the relief effort is bigger. The churches are filled with prayer and compassion; the volunteers are opening their hearts and giving of their time. Many of the post-secondary institutions have made their residences available to help the displaced. And charity is plentiful and moving: the eight-year-old girl who donated a $100 of her own money; the runner who undertook a charity marathon even though he had never heard of Fort McMurray until the fire; the Syrian refugees who raised almost $4,000 for fire relief even though they themselves had recently lost everything they owned.
It is always difficult to put tragedies into context. At St. Mary’s University I looked at a photo of a staff member’s street in Fort McMurray. Five houses with For Sale signs stood untouched by fire; hers, not for sale, was aflame. Who can say why bad things happen to good people. What is clear is that how we respond to tragedy is what defines the human spirit, and it is what helps a community to heal. In that sense it’s true to say that Fort McMurray will be stronger when it is rebuilt, not just because new infrastructure will be developed, but because every resident will know that the hearts of many are behind the reconstruction. This is the flame of compassion that will rebuild the town.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.