As thousands of Canadians flee a historic forest fire in Fort McMurray, a rabbi on Long Island is watching his former hometown — and those of his friends — burn.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman has imparted Jewish teachings at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove for the past decade, but before moving to Long Island, Huberman called Alberta, Canada, home.
Fort McMurray, about 435 miles northeast of Calgary, is especially meaningful to him, he said. He and his wife raised their family there, he got his first job as a newspaper reporter there, and he eventually owned his own newspaper in the town. After living there from 1976 to 1991, Huberman returned to the town to write a book on its history that was published in 2001.
“I’m watching with great interest and sadness,” he said Friday. “But I am more concerned about the here and now, and how to assist those who need it.”
Since Sunday, the blaze has torn through more than 250,000 acres of the forested community, displacing more than 88,000 residents as firefighters struggle to get the flames under control. The fire, which Canadian officials said is expected to double in size by Saturday, has destroyed some 1,600 buildings, though there have been no deaths or injuries, The Associated Press reported.
Huberman said Fort McMurray is a wealthier community founded to support Canada’s oil sands. Through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s the town’s population ballooned, but in his research and time living there, no natural disaster has compared to this fire.
Now, all that’s left for some are the charred remains of their homes. Huberman keeps in touch with friends still living in the area and said their stories are sobering. One man called Huberman from under a bridge, saying he had to flee his apartment with his pickup truck and cat.
One woman saw four out of six of her grandchildren’s homes in the town reduced to ash.
Huberman said his experience working in the Alberta Disaster Services Department and his time spent living there taught him that the displaced residents will be taken care of, but he wants to make sure the support is there to do so.
“There’s no one out there hungry at this moment, but there will be a substantial effort to help sustain these families until the fire is completely extinguished,” he said.
The province government is providing cash to help with immediate costs for families, according to the AP, and is offering to match donations to the Canadian Red Cross along with the Canadian government.
Huberman said he’s encouraging those who want to help to donate to the Canadian Red Cross to maximize those matching funds and ensure more support for the displaced families.
“As a rabbi, it’s important that God protect and sustain people, but Jewish tradition teaches that action is more important than prayer,” he said. “Prayer is important, but action is more important.”