Dane Kaiser could feel the pulsing heat of Fort McMurray's ferocious wildfire as he drove up to the perimeter of the uncontrollable blaze on Saturday afternoon.
"We could see plumes of smoke and balls of flames just bursting in the skies. The trees would go up in flames and there were fires to the left of us and the right of us," Mr. Kaiser says. He recalls the convoys of pick-up trucks emerging from the smoke, as families left their homes with whatever they could salvage.
"The fire was getting closer and closer to us, and the water-bombers were coming in, trying to hit around the flames along the highway, because that's where the people were coming out," he said. "They had to wait until the water-bombers could clear a path for them, just so they could get across the highway."
"It was kind of terrifying to understand what they went through."
Kaiser had taken the day off from his oilfield job in Edmonton to help out. He filled his off-road truck with donated supplies and drove 270 miles north. He's among thousands of Canadians sending money, opening their homes, and traveling hours to help the 80,000 people displaced by wildfires in northern Alberta.
It's a nationwide effort that has seen disparate communities – including Syrian refugees taken in by Canada; victims of 2013's rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec; and even Canadians thousands of miles away who happen to have a spare room – rally together to help those languishing from an ongoing disaster that spanned 625 square miles on Sunday.
Kaiser got involved through one of a dozen Facebook groups where Canadians are offering houses and supplies to evacuees. With donations from family and friends, he filled his truck water, diapers, gasoline, and food. When Kaiser told a stranger at Costco what he was doing, the man insisted on paying the $300 bill.
Kaiser arrived at the edge of the wildfire alongside trucks full of supplies from Vancouver and Ontario, and even horse trailers and dog kennels.
Syrians pay it forward
Informal volunteers like Kaiser have helped supply scores of makeshift welcoming centers between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. While these community centers, school gyms, and farm sheds offer basic essentials, some held Mother's Day brunches Sunday to try restoring a sense of normalcy for the evacuees.
And support is coming from farther afield. In Calgary, some 465 miles south of the devastation zone, a group of Syrian refugees who arrived in a recent airlift are assembling hampers for evacuees moving in with relatives and strangers.
"As Syrian refugees, we have the same suffering," says Rita Kallas, who came to Canada five months ago with her husband and young son. She says the images of home being razed and convoys of families fleeing made her think of her country.
"Nobody can understand the people of Fort McMurray like us, because they lost everything in a second, and we as Syrian refugees lost everything in a second. So we can understand their feeling totally," she says. "We feel it in our hearts."
Ms. Kallas took to the Facebook page of 99 Hampers of Hope, an organization which assembled baskets of necessities this winter as Canada took in 25,000 Syrian refugees. Kallas suggested her fellow Syrians pay it forward by making similar baskets for people fleeing Fort McMurray.
"We want to be part of this society. We want to share with Canadians everything; the happy things and the sad things," she says.
'When someone's in need, we step up'
Some 1,700 miles from the wildfires, in the Ottawa-area town of Embrun, Freda Willcott has two spare bedrooms, a fridge full of food, and a laundry machine waiting for anyone who needs help.
"Here in Ottawa, you almost feel helpless. We're so far away but if anyone's driving east, we've got a big house," she says. "If anyone needs a place to stay, we'll accommodate them with everything we've got."
Ms. Willcott's daughter lived in Fort McMurray until last Wednesday, when she was forced to quickly evacuate and drive through roads surrounded by fire. After spending a few nights in a hotel, she connected online with a cottage resort that is now hosting dozens of evacuees free of charge.
"Canada's the best country in the world, and that's what we do — we step up to the plate. Without a doubt, when someone's in need we step up," says Willcott. "Fort McMurray shows that on a big scale."
Echoes of Lac-Mégantic
The solidarity has extended to Quebec, despite the province's widespread environmental opposition to Alberta's oil sands, which surround Fort McMurray.
The town of Lac-Mégantic, where 47 died in a 2013 rail disaster, is organizing fundraisers for the Red Cross. Local member of Parliament Luc Berthold told reporters Thursday that no one could see pictures of Fort McMurray and fail to recall the night three years ago when a runaway crude-oil train derailed and exploded in the town center.
"Three years ago, it was our population that was leveled by a tragedy, and all of Canada mobilized itself for us," he said. "Now it's our turn to support this community."
For Kaiser, these outpourings of support highlight a quiet but strong sense of duty among Canadians.
"If something goes wrong, we just come together so strongly that it's almost unbelievable,” he says. “You can't stop us.”