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Fort McMurray disaster shows the worst times can create the best moments

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Photo: Ara Shimoon/flickr

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Sometimes, the worst times create the best moments.

My nominee, among many, for last week's best moment is a Calgary woman named Rita Khanchat.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's start with those worst times.

One week ago, Wildfire MWF-009 -- now more colloquially and correctly known as "The Beast" -- flared out of control in too-dry-for-too-long woods southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, leaped a kilometre over the Athabasca River and wreaked nature's havoc on Canada's quintessential frontier town.

It became impossible to update the "as big as" analogies as the insatiable fire routinely doubled its daily torched earth toll; swallowed 1,600 homes; scattered 80,000 residents, including babies in the process of being born; exhausted the frustrated attention of more than 500 firefighters and hundreds of pieces of sophisticated-but-no-match-for-this fire-fighting equipment... and showed no sign it was ready to stop raging.

Perhaps it's because of this disaster's hard-to-contemplate scale, perhaps because so many of us, particularly here in Atlantic Canada, have friends or family in Fort Mac. Regardless, the response was massive and instantaneous. Within days, donations to Red Cross relief topped $30 million, money Ottawa promised to match.

Musicians do what musicians do. In Halifax, Ben Kaplan put on a benefit concert at the Carleton. Proceeds from Rapper Classified's latest song, Working Away, will go to disaster relief. So will this week's online take at Halifax-based Groundswell Music.

Some gestures were personal. An Ottawa bridal shop donated two wedding gowns to an about-to-be bride who'd had to leave her own dress behind during the evacuation. A friend of another woman, nine months pregnant -- who lost her house, including a just-finished nursery, as well as her car to the flames -- posted an online appeal. She raised $11,000 within the day, as well as promised donations of cribs and baby supplies.

And then there's Rita Khanchant, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary with her family, but little else, in December.

"Canadians have provided us with everything and now we have a duty," she wrote on a private Facebook page last week. "Get ready, it's time to fulfill." The refugees weren't able to offer much -- $500–$1,000 -- but they did what they could. Because they wanted to help too.

Worst times. Best moments.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Ara Shimoon/flickr

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