LAC LA BICHE, Alberta (AP) — A community recreation center has become a lifeline for thousands of evacuees from the massive wildfire raging north of this small city.
A gymnasium area with basketball hoops at The Bold Center has been converted to a mall of sorts, with bins of shoes and tables overflowing with clothes and towels, free to all who need them.
Upstairs, health and mental services are offered, and an animal care center has been set up for people to kennel their pets on site.
Nicole Cormier, a photographer from Fort McMurray, is staying with family in Lac La Biche but brings neighbors that she evacuated with to the center every day for services, including checking in with insurance companies.
"It's kind of nice to be here because the people are in same boat as you," she said Saturday, as she showed cell phone photos she shot from her backyard of the advancing fire, and photos of flames on the side of the road while they were evacuating. "It's a support system."
More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada' oil sands, where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings.
Officials said the fire had grown to more than 156,000 hectares (385,500 acres), or about 600 square miles. No deaths or injuries were reported.
Jihad Moghrabi, a spokesman for Lac La Biche County said that 4,400 evacuees have come through The Bold Center.
Members of the Ironworkers Local 720 were working grills outside in front of the center, barbecuing everything from salmon to burgers and hot dogs.
"People are very thankful," said Joseph Zelmer, who was cooking up some bologna. "I'm just doing my part."
The center has received so many donations they had to put out a sign letting people know they have all they need at this point, with the only exception being supplies for the animals.
Philip Wylie, wife Suda and 13-month-old daughter Phaedra, were among those staying at the center after evacuating their apartment in Fort McMurray on Tuesday.
They rushed to pack, grabbed documents, passports and their laptops before they left, but thinking that they would be able to return home soon, only packed enough clothes for two days.
Philip Wylie said the response from the community and at the evacuation centers has been overwhelming.
"Everything that I'm wearing right now, besides my shoes and my socks, is donation," he said.
Curtis Lewis, who evacuated Anzac three days ago and is staying nearby at a place that does not allow animals, was visiting his dog Muncho at the animal care area at the Bond Center. A hallway upstairs was packed with food, toys and treats.
While Muncho played with a donated squeak toy, Lewis said he worried about what he'll return to when the evacuation orders are lifted.
"It's hard," he said. "You think about it every day."