For a family of four forced to flee the Fort McMurray wildfire earlier this month, the support they have received since arriving in Terrace has been overwhelming.
Jen and Lee Suurhoff along with their two daughters Madelyn, 6, and Reese, 2, will be staying with relatives in town until they are allowed to return to Alberta and survey the damage done to their home.
The pair, originally from Campbell River, say they are now working on getting settled in to everyday life in Terrace.
It didn’t take long following their arrival before help from the community started pouring in. Jen was overwhelmed by the response to her social media postings.
“My inbox has been flooded,” she said. “[By] the second day there were tonnes of people coming to drop off toys, clothes, food and even gift cards.”
“Everyone here [has] really, really opened their arms,” Lee remarked.
The Suurhoffs don’t yet know the fate of their house of three years in Fort McMurray and say that even as they were evacuating they weren’t prepared for what the fire would do to their community.
“We were thinking ‘it won’t reach our house’ but by the time we left town we heard that the fire had come into our neighbourhood,” Jen said.
“We know that [our house] is not burnt down, the structure is there. We’re thinking it got some water and smoke damage. Half of our street is gone – houses on our street have been completely burnt and we missed it by a few.”
It’s the family’s first-ever stay in Terrace and they are living with Jen’s parents, Andre and Emily Le Doux.
As of late last week, 20 families in northern B.C. have registered with the Canadian Red Cross.
Lee, a heavy equipment operator, said they chose to come here so that their young children would have a place to stay while he returned to work.
“Once I found out how bad it was, I knew I’d be going back [to camp] quicker than we’d be going back to our home,” he explained. “So I at least wanted my family to be with family.”
It is expected to take months before residents will be able to go back home again and so the Suurhoff family has chosen to enrol their eldest daughter in school.
“We went to check out the school down the road because we weren’t sure if we were going to send her to school because that’s a lot of change for a six-year-old,” Jen said.
“But we met the principal and they gave her everything that she needed. They let her pick out a new backpack, they gave her supplies, they put her in the hot lunch and breakfast program all for free.”
A local gymnastics club also provided spots for both the daughters free of charge. “We’re just trying to establish a routine, that is the best way we can settle,” Jen explained. “[Madelyn] goes to school, they’re both going to be in gymnastics. We’re just trying to get back that sense of normal.”
Lee was an hour and a half away from home at work when the evacuation of Fort McMurray started on May 3, but he wasn’t worried because the first reports stated that the fire was still some distance from their home.
“It pretty much went from nothing to evacuation in a couple of hours – it got bad pretty fast,” Jen reflected. By the time Lee arrived home that day, the entire town was being evacuated.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be gone for a couple of days or a week, we kind of packed for week, but now we’re probably talking about three months or so,” she continued.
Since registering with the Red Cross, the Suurhoffs have been receiving updates from the Alberta government by email and phone. An estimate of how long it will take before residents can return to Fort McMurray is expected to be released this week.
Lee and Jen are eager to head back and start rebuilding. “The thing about Fort McMurray is the community is amazing, just like Terrace is here,” said Lee. “I don’t think the community will take a whole lot to come back.”