As Fort McMurray burns, the international Jewish community steps up
By Sammy Hudes, Times of Israel,May 10, 2016
With wildfire causing mass evacuations of over 90,000, IsraAid provides on-the-ground psychological support while local organizations help displaced
Toronto – Howard Rensler was in his downtown Fort McMurray, Alberta, office on May 3 when his staff told him to look outside. Glancing out his window, the executive director of the local Boys and Girls Club saw heavy clouds of black smoke blowing in their direction.
“This was clearly not your average little fire anymore. The fire just blossomed, took over major residential areas,” said Rensler, a 65-year-old member of the region’s sparse Jewish population.
After evacuating the boys and girls at the club, Rensler and his wife Diana went straight to one of the emergency evacuation centers set up by the city, where they helped community members register themselves.
After the mandatory evacuation orders came down from the province, unable to go home to retrieve spare clothing or other belongings, Rensler and his wife decided to drive south to Edmonton.
As a wildfire more than double the size of New York City continues to burn in the Canadian province of Alberta, upwards of 90,000 people have been forced to evacuate their homes under mandatory evacuation orders as the province declared a state of emergency. The fire, which has raged on for more than a week, has consumed the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray, considered to be Canada’s oil capital.
On Monday, the wildfire covered 200,000 hectares (nearly 495,000 acres) of land and authorities said it could potentially grow another 100,000 hectares before Tuesday’s end. The area engulfed in flames is already more than triple the size of Alberta’s provincial capital of Edmonton and double the size of Calgary, the province’s most populated city.
Approximately 2,400 structures were lost, including many homes, according to the local government, who say significant rain is needed to stop the fire’s growth. The urban area is centered in Alberta’s oil sands, which are a major driver of the Canadian economy.
“We are thinking of – and praying for – the people of Fort McMurray,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement last week. “Though Alberta’s loss is profound, we will get through this tragedy together: as friends, as neighbors, as Canadians.”
Like the Renslers, most of the evacuees have fled to Edmonton, which, at 450 kilometers (280 miles) south, is the closest major city to Fort McMurray.
“It took us 12 hours for usually a four-hour trip, including a two-hour, five-mile lineup for gas along the way,” Rensler said. “People were leaving town in pack. Imagine the busiest bumper-to-bumper traffic in rush hour in a city, but all the way to Edmonton.”
With smoke “absolutely everywhere,” Rensler said it felt like driving through a fog storm as he watched familiar restaurants and hotels burn 10 meters from the roadway.
“Flaming embers were occasionally bouncing across the highway. That’s when it first started to sink in to me that this wasn’t just another forest fire, this was somehow going to be a life-changing event,” said Rensler.
“This wasn’t just an inconvenience any longer. This was a genuine threat to our lives, forgetting all the threat to our property and whatnot that we left behind,” he said.
IsraAid hits the ground in Canadian first
By week’s end, Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAid will join the international effort to help the Canadian evacuees. It is, said Shachar Zahavi, IsraAid’s founding director and CEO, a symbol of Israeli appreciation for longstanding Canadian support of the Jewish State.
Zahavi told The Times of Israel the non-profit NGO would be sending three or four professionals by the end of the week to evacuation centers in Alberta to provide them with social and psychological services and child-friendly spaces.
This marks the first time IsraAid will be providing on-the-ground support in Canada. The organization has in the past responded to major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in the United States, earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, and recent floods in the UK.
“I think Canadians have been very supportive of us and this is a way to show Israelis’ gratitude,” said Zahavi. “We want to show that wherever we can help, we’ll come and help.”
IsraAid is coordinating its efforts with the Canadian Red Cross, which is managing the wildfire response. Zahavi said he hopes to send a second wave of staff to help clean up the debris in Fort McMurray once the fires calm down.
The first delegation will be in Canada for a minimum of three weeks, Zahavi said, and staff could remain on the ground for months, depending on how much relief is required as well as IsraAid’s own fundraising efforts.
Ve’ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian organization based in Toronto, has already pledged to donate at least $10,000 to IsraAid’s mission through a fundraiser set up in response to the wildfire.
The Canadian group has raised $17,000 and more donations are expected to roll in, according to founder and CEO Avrum Rosensweig.
“This fire is probably one of the worst fires in Western Canada ever and certainty one of the worst in Canada, so we being Canadian Jews behooves us to help our brothers and sisters in Alberta,” said Rosensweig.
‘We being Canadian Jews behooves us to help our brothers and sisters in Alberta’
“When there’s a crisis in the world, often you’ll hear of a Christian response and you’ll hear of a Muslim response from organizations within their environment and it seems appropriate that there’s a Jewish response as well,” said Rosensweig.
He said the balance of donations would go to the Red Cross, which had collected $60 million for the relief effort as of Monday.
The Canadian government has vowed to match the total funds raised by the Red Cross in federal assistance. So too has the Alberta government in provincial funds.
The local Jewish community steps up
According to Canadian census data, Rensler is one of approximately 70 Jewish people living in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which encompasses Fort McMurray and many surrounding areas devastated by the fire.
Alberta’s local Jewish community promptly stepped up to assist evacuees from Fort McMurray once the fire began spreading rapidly.
Rabbi Menachem Matusof, the executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta, said Chabad tried to contact every Jewish family in their records living in the region. He said those reached by phone were all safe, having mostly evacuated to Edmonton, along with a few to Calgary.
Chabad helped arrange accommodation for evacuees in the two major cities and also reached out Friday to provide challah for Shabbat to Jewish families who had evacuated.
“In the long run our plan is to offer at least to start mezuzahs for people for their homes once they rebuild and move back but that’s probably a long way down the road,” he said. “I’m sure that there will be a lot of emotional support that people will need once they realize what hit them and once they realize what they’ve lost.”
The Jewish Federation of Edmonton has set up a donation drive to collect supplies such as food, water, diapers and clothing for those who have temporary settled in their city, according to CEO Debby Shoctor.
“People are giving their homes, they’re giving extra rental units that they have or condos that they have sitting empty. All the restaurants in town are giving free meals to the evacuees,” said Shoctor. “It’s just incredible what people are doing in Edmonton to help the evacuees because most of them are coming here.”
As part of a national effort by Canada’s Jewish Federations, Shoctor said the JFE has also set up a fundraiser that has reached $2,500 locally so far. In the Southern Alberta city of Calgary, the Jewish federation collected $12,000 in its first week, and also donated $25,000 of its own through a preexisting emergency fund.
Jewish communities throughout all of Canada had raised a combined $100,000 for the cause as of Monday evening.
These funds will be donated to organizations providing direct aid such as the Edmonton Food Bank and Edmonton Emergency Relief services.
“The response there in Edmonton literally made us cry,” said Rensler, who spent two days with his wife in the first hotel they could find that had vacancies, coming off the highway.
He said various groups brought them clothing, food, and supplies, and local restaurants served them heavily-discounted, if not free, meals.
“We left with clothes on our back and that’s about it. I didn’t even have a full wallet with me,” said Rensler. “The response from the community, not just the Jewish community but the entire community in Edmonton was extremely overwhelming.”
The two later flew to British Columbia where they are now staying with friends while they wait. Rensler said he doesn’t believe their home is one of those that were destroyed, however he anticipates significant smoke damage when they eventually return.
“Having just gone through Pesach, the Dayenu phrase, ‘that would have been enough’ is kind of ringing in my ears a little bit,” Rensler said. “As I was driving up the highway I was just thinking ‘get me out of here and get my wife out of here alive and that will be enough.’ And it’s probably still enough. We can deal with all the circumstantial stuff when have to.”