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Forced to flee Fort McMurray, some evacuees return to Sarnia

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Cathy Dobson

Terrin Brush considers herself one of the lucky ones.

Forced by wildfires to evacuate Fort McMurray, she and her husband are now with family in Sarnia and been assured their home is intact.

“The outpouring of support has been wonderful,” said Brush, a hairdresser and former Lambton College instructor who moved from Sarnia to Alberta last summer.

“But we have such a feeling of being displaced and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

The days following the evacuation have provided more questions than answers.

Brush’s brother and his family also fled Fort McMurray and the two families flew back to Ontario together.

Friend Dave Perrin of Sarnia picked them up at London Airport with his two little girls, and is co-ordinating a campaign to assist them and other evacuees locally.

“It’s about welcoming friends home and giving them a helping hand,” Perrin said. “I know there are others coming here from Fort McMurray because of the heavy ties between our communities.

“There are displaced families here that need our help.”

Terrin Brush and her husband of two months, Mike Bell, had enough time to pack important papers, some clothes and a few sentimental items before heading to a camp north of Fort McMurray.

“At first, it was a voluntary evacuation, then it was mandatory,” she said. “That’s when I felt a little panic.

“Our experience hasn’t been nearly as overwhelming and scary as some but we could see ash in the air. It was really windy and, as we drove away from the city, we saw the water bombers overhead.”

Her landlord confirmed her home is still standing and her brother, Derek Brush, has seen evidence his house is OK. Some 2,400 structures were destroyed after fire tore through the community and caused the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents.

Brush said she knows people who lost their home and feels anxious for them. It’s not clear when the Alberta government will allow evacuees to return.

“We decided to fly home to Ontario, mostly because my husband’s family lost their house in the Goderich tornado and this felt reminiscent of that,” Brush said. “We wanted to be with family.”

While Perrin is concentrating on a drive to get gift cards and money to evacuees who won’t be able to resume work for some time, other Sarnians are providing material goods and moral support.

Najwa Aboshawish, owner of Moda Hair Salon in Corunna and Sarnia, is offering free services to Fort McMurray evacuees. About five have been in to get their hair done.

Aboshawish also accepted donations of baby supplies, toiletries, water and clothing that were trucked to Edmonton by Wallace-Kent Sprinkler Systems Inc. last week.

“Fort McMurray is close to my heart,” said Aboshawish. “I want to help people directly. I have a lot of friends who are at the evacuation centre in Edmonton and they haven’t heard much yet.

“It’s very sad. There is so much uncertainty.”

Other Sarnians who have provided assistance during the crisis include Ryan McLean, a process operator and emergency responder at Shell in Corunna.

He and seven other Shell Corunna firefighters spent a week battling the blaze with colleagues from Shell’s Albian Sands near Fort McMurray.

“There were neighbourhoods that looked like they were bombed, completely burned out,” said McLean.  “It was really eerie because you’d see 10 houses burned down, then one left. One street would be completely gone and the next looked normal.”

The local Shell crew toured the streets of Fort McMurray in their fire trucks, looking for hot spots and looters.

“We put out a number of small fires,” said McLean. “And one of the guys pursued a looter and handed him over to the RCMP.”

Another firefighter from Shell Corunna helped rescue several pets from the evacuated city.

“It was great to see everyone coming together, helping any way they could,” said McLean, “but I hope to never see that kind of destruction again.”

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