Fire Makes Albertans Refugees in Their Own Province

“As we were making our way out slowly, the fire was intensifying. The south end of our subdivision was beginning to burn.”

That is how George Holthof, pastor of Evergreen Christian Reformed Church in Fort McMurray, Alta., described his flight with his wife from a city engulfed in flames. Massive wildfires caused the entire city of 88,000 to be evacuated.

Holthof said they had planned to stay with people on the north side of town but then that was under evacuation too. They were sent north to one of the oil companies’ work camps. “There were hundreds of vehicles, bumper to bumper, and gridlock at times,” Holthof said.

Fort Mac, as it is also called, is the oilsands capital of Alberta. It is located 435 kilometres (270 miles) northeast of Edmonton, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) west of the Saskatchewan border at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. The city is ringed by boreal forest and has only one major highway in and out. As thousands, including Holthof and his wife, fled north to oilsands camps, tens of thousands headed south toward

Edmonton. Social media and television coverage captured the surreal images of one long line of vehicles, bumper to bumper, driving north and south on the highway alongside dramatic walls of flames. Apocalyptic is one word many people used to describe the scene.

As thousands were fleeing to Edmonton, Rev. Rich DeLange, pastor of that city’s Trinity CRC, sent out an invitation to all the CRCs in Edmonton to a prayer service for Fort McMurray and all those affected by the wildfires.

Among those in attendance were Evergreen members including Nathan Koops, Linda Mywaart, music coordinator at Evergreen, and her husband. DeLange opened the service with the reading of Psalm 137. He compared the mournful situation of the Israelites, driven from their land, weary and brokenhearted, to how the people in Fort McMurray might be feeling about their present situation: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.”

“I have never experienced anything like it in all my life,” said Koops, speaking of his experience leaving Fort McMurray the previous day. “My number-one priority was getting my family to safety.” Koops testified that he felt God’s hands on them throughout the long and arduous process. 

Holthof said that as far as he knew, “All Evergreen people are coping well, all are safe, and some are settling into new interim places, but all are scattered. Most are in and around Edmonton. Some are on the road to family elsewhere. Some of the kids are going to be going back to school today in ‘new’ schools in various communities. People are trying to get as much ‘normalcy’ as possible.”

Amidst all the destruction and devastation, there was some good news as well. “From satellite pictures taken May 6 we can see that Evergreen church and  and the Christian school are okay,” Holthof reported. “Our home is good! But the subdivision where we live is more than half destroyed. It is sounding like we will not be going home to Fort McMurray for some weeks, perhaps a couple of months. I think we are seeing and experiencing our faith as an anchor in uncertain times, and seeing the blessings and love of God in surprising ways.”

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