Our thoughts on evacuating people and pets from Fort McMurray

The tragic disaster in Fort McMurray is far from over and there is much work to be done to make the city safe for residents to come home. Now that the majority of individuals who were in harm’s way have been evacuated, we took a moment to reflect on the past ten days. It has been one full of amazing stories of care and compassion, as well as sadness and loss. It has also been full of misinformation, speculation and Internet rumour presented as fact. We want to take a minute to clear a few things up.

There has been much made of WestJet’s efforts to evacuate the people of Fort McMurray. We were fortunate to be able to respond quickly thanks to existing charter contracts that we have with oil sands operators in the area and because WestJetters were available to work at a moment’s notice when we called for help.

As the fires got closer to the Fort McMurray Airport, it was no longer safe to fly in to and the airport was shut down. WestJet went back one last time with three aircraft to collect any remaining WestJetters, guests and anyone else stranded at the terminal.

In the meantime, WestJet was also contracted by both Suncor and Shell to fly in and out of two other aerodromes (landing strips) north of Fort McMurray: Suncor’s Firebag and Shell’s Albian facilities. With previous experience flying in to these locations already under our belt and with Shell and Suncor asking us to help evacuate people from their locations, we were among the first airline to bring people out.

WestJet received a lot of attention in both traditional and social media during the first few days of the evacuation. Initially the stories were centred on peoples’ appreciation for us being there to fly them out. This story quickly morphed to us flying people and their pets to safety.

Dogs sitting in Plus was something we thought we would never see but yes, it’s true, we did operate numerous flights with pets in the cabin. With no kennels available, we were glad to get entire families, including pets, to safety. The internet went wild! However, many of the photos that went viral were actually of Canadian North flights (they also operate Boeing 737s just like us). In times like these, it’s one big airline family and we were proud to play our part in the broader rescue efforts.

Here are a few of the more popular stories that we saw throughout the first few days of the Fort McMurray evacuation. These stories show the power of a good image, with a touching story, and how humans aspire to take care of each other during tough times. These stories also demonstrate that people on the Internet love to share a good news story.

On the first night a woman with an acreage near Edmonton offered up her land if anyone needed a place to stay. That was the first of many widely-shared posts.

An employee at ATS (the company WestJet contracts for ground handling in Edmonton) posted this heartfelt note after departing a plane headed to Fort McMurray.

Then we saw this.

Then there was this.

And this.

This story is far from over and we’re sure that we’ll see even more wonderful tales about the generosity of the human spirit in the weeks and months to come.

So what can you do to help? The best way is through a cash donation to a trusted source such as the Red Cross. WestJet has made a donation of $25,000 and 400 flights to the Red Cross and we are calling on everyone to donate cash to the Canadian Red Cross Alberta Fires Appeal as well.

Before we go, we would like to take a moment to recognize the other airlines and airports whose employees worked as tirelessly as our own WestJetters did to evacuate everyone from the Fort McMurray area. Right beside our own planes at Albian and Firebag were aircraft from Air North, Canadian North, North Cariboo Air, Air Canada, Enerjet, Flair Air, Suncor Sunlink, Shell Aviation as well as just about any other airline that was able to send up a plane. These planes flew people to both Edmonton and Calgary, and each of the airports did a great job of handling hundreds of unscheduled flights and thousands of tired, scared and bewildered evacuees.

We would also like to thank all the other organizations, emergency responders and the public at large who have largely gone unrecognized and who stepped up to assist without a second thought.

We are extremely proud to have been able to work for and with Suncor, Shell and the many others who have been bringing evacuees to safety. Our thoughts and hearts are with those affected by this disaster – including a number of our own WestJet employees – and we look forward to bringing community members back to the area when it’s safe to do so.