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Whitecourt, Alta., businesses serve hot meals with a side of gratitude for wildfire crews

Escalating wildfire danger led to the postponement of an awards banquet in Whitecourt two weeks ago — but organizers didn’t call off the four-course meal.

Instead, forestry company West Fraser, which operates the local Blue Ridge Lumber mill, delivered the food to wildfire emergency responders from nearby Lac Ste. Anne County and Yellowhead County. Crew members each got a serving of roast beef and chicken cordon bleu, salads, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, and dessert.

Kelly Gray, of Catering by Mama Gray’s Kitchen and The Arena Restaurant & Lounge, prepared the feast.

“[The company] did not even want to change the menu,” she said.

“They wanted to give these firefighters and these crews exactly what they were going to get for their awards banquet, which I thought was pretty amazing.”

Whitecourt is about 180 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, and it’s a hub for wildfire evacuees from multiple communities.

West Fraser is one of several businesses supporting fire crews and evacuees with free meals as communities band together to support those in need.

“We are grateful for the many emergency responders and volunteers working around the clock to keep people, communities and infrastructure like our mills safe while preserving our forest resource,” said Blue Ridge Lumber general manager Hardeep Khun-Khun.

Gray has served up roughly 2,000 meals, all at cost, sponsored by local companies. She has also organized a free Mother’s Day sundae bar for evacuees.

“Your heart has to go out to these poor families that all of a sudden have to uproot and take their kids, take their pets. They don’t know if they’re going to be coming home to ashes. They don’t know what’s going to happen with their town, with their job, their school,” Gray said.

“And we could go to sleep and wake up and we could face that. … So I just think we all have to stand together and do what we can to help our neighbours.”

A woman smiles next to a massive bowl of macaroni salad.
Fox Cree evacuee Mozan Le offered to volunteer, but Kelly Gray hired her instead. (Submitted by Kelly Gray)

‘Thankful for the sacrifices’

A spokesperson for the town of Whitecourt said at peak demand, the community was serving business-sponsored breakfasts and dinners for more than 1,000 evacuees from Fox Creek, Valleyview and communities in the Municipal District of Greenview.

One of those meals was a turkey dinner put on by Millar Western Forest Products. Some of the food went to former employees of Millar, which used to operate a sawmill in Fox Creek.

“Whitecourt’s a wonderful community for coming together and supporting one another when the chips are down, so it was nice to be able to be a part of that,” said Brian McConkey, Millar vice president of human resources and corporate affairs.

During the dinner, Gray asked evacuees to write notes to firefighters. She attached them to lunches sent to Fox Creek fire crews the next day.

“I am thankful for the sacrifices you are making!” wrote one evacuee.

“I know it is not easy being away from family and friends while putting yourself at risk to help others! Thank you!”

Thank you notes to Fox Creek firefighters
Some of the thank-you notes wildfire evacuees wrote to Fox Creek firefighters. (Submitted by Kelly Gray)

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