Terrace Salvation Army Capt. Jim Vanderheyden beside a burnt out tractor in Fort McMurray.

Terrace Salvation Army members now in Fort McMurray

Army's Terrace-based mobile kitchen serving up hot meals and support

TWO members of the Salvation Army in Terrace are now in Fort McMurray dishing out hot meals and support for firefighters and others in the area using the Army’s local mobile kitchen.

Capt. Jim VanderHeyden drove the vehicle there earlier this week and was then joined by local Army volunteer Lolita Dunham who flew into the northern Alberta community which was evacuated last month as a massive wildfire swept through its neighbourhoods.

The mobile kitchen, which has freezers, fridges, a grill and industrial oven, is set up near one of Fort McMurray’s fire halls.

Also on hand are Salvation Army members from Chilliwack, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Salmon Arm and Vancouver.

“The Salvation Army from Terrace is very appreciative to be involved with this and I’m so appreciative to have this truck so that we can lend a hand and we can be involved in things in the province and outside of the province, if need be,” VanderHeyden said in a phone conversation from Fort McMurray May 27.

The team’s purpose has been to ensure that first responders, clean up crews and workers, who’ve been rushing to meet a June 1 deadline to get the city ready for residents to re-enter, had food, basic supplies and, if they were so inclined, a welcoming person to talk to about their experiences and emotions.

Driving into Fort McMurray, VanderHeyden was corralled into a line by security guards who have been keeping the city on lockdown. “They have a list and your name’s either on the list or it’s not,” said VanderHeyden. “Once they confirm you’re supposed to be here you’re given a wristband and you’re told where you’re supposed to be.”

He said sections of town were still smoldering, and essential workers have been busy clearing away dead trees, debris and repairing parts of town made unsafe from the wildfires.

“Once you get about 20 miles from Fort McMurray you can really start to smell the smoke,” VanderHeyden said when describing his journey into the city. “You can just see it in the air and smell it.”

“Some people seem tired,” VanderHeyden said about some of the workers he’s served meals to in the city. “They’ve been doing this for awhile now, they’ve been separated from their families and now there’s some fatigue.”

“But I think that really they’re a really great community, they really seem to be banding together and supporting each other and loving each other. This is pretty devastating and to be carrying even a smile around is pretty amazing.”

When VanderHeyden arrived in town with the mobile kitchen May 26, he said his team served around 60 hot dinners of meatloaf, scalloped potatoes and vegetables that evening. That number has only increased since then.

“The people we serve everyday, it fluctuates how many, but we’re here giving the first responders some spiritual care, some support – firemen, police, crew trying to put some kind of order back in here,” VanderHeyden said.

“I think they do want to talk, I think that people do want to vent a little bit if they can. When something like this happens you can’t really point your finger at anything,” VanderHeyden said. “Some people didn’t grab anything from their house, so all their memories are gone.”

“People here are facing some big challenges,” VanderHeyden said. “I was listening to one lady talk to somebody else and she said to him, ‘I know a fire went through my neighbourhood, but it looks like a bomb went off.’ It’s just devastating.”

The first evening the Salvation Army team set up, just before the kitchen started running out of its main course, Dunham was ready with servings of pulled pork on a bun in addition to preparing cinnamon buns for the next morning.

“They were very appreciative of that,” said VanderHeyden of those served by the Salvation Army vehicle.

Dunham’s no stranger to Alberta disasters – in 2013 she accompanied the mobile kitchen to Calgary in response to severe flooding there.

VanderHedyen and Dunham and the rest of the Salvation Army members from B.C. will be returning home late next week to debrief and decompress from their own experience volunteering. The mobile kitchen, however, will stay in Fort McMurray indefinitely with a new team taking over duties.