Paul Spring and his staff had spent endless hours helping others escape the Fort McMurray fires – but now were in a jam themselves.
The president of charter helicopter company Phoenix Heli-Flight, pilots and other employees were forced Wednesday afternoon to make a quick evacuation from their hangar near the Fort McMurray airport. In vehicles on the road and in helicopters in the sky, they convoyed south down Highway 63 and away from the wildfire flames.
They hadn't had time to refill their diesel tank – towed with them to keep their support trucks and vans running – and were getting low on fuel. They had just pulled over at an industrial yard to figure out what to do when a man walked over and asked Mr. Spring how he was doing.
"And here's how karma works," said Mr. Spring, laughing as he recalled his surprise at the moment.
"He says, 'Can I give you guys anything? You saved me yesterday – me and my family.'"
Mr. Spring was soon reminded that his helicopters had rescued the man and 11 other members of the man's family – three adults and eight children – from a house that had been cut off by growing flames on Tuesday.
"He says, 'I own a business right here in this industrial park. I've got a whole tanker full of diesel waiting to get to the bulldozers. We can top your tank for you.'"
The man filled their tank with 400 litres of fuel for his vehicles, free of charge. Mr. Spring says the kind act is just one demonstration of how the larger community is responding to the fires and the continuing emergency with kindness and reciprocity.
"No one is charging for anything, even all the helicopters," he says. "You've just got to do it and get it done."
A long-time Fort McMurray resident, Mr. Spring has been piloting helicopters in the area for three decades and has personally battled dozens of other northern Alberta wildfires. In more ordinary times, he often acts as tour guide for politicians, movie stars, business moguls and other prominent figures – including retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, in 2014 – looking for a bird's-eye view of the oil sands.
As the wildfires in northern Alberta continue, Mr. Spring and his staff are now temporarily running operations out of a work camp about 100 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. He believes the Phoenix Heli-Flight hangar is safe, for the moment. When they evacuated Wednesday, they had to leave behind one brand-new helicopter undergoing technical upgrades.
The seven helicopters he has with him are being piloted around the clock, helping with the firefighting efforts and delivering the sick and infirm to an oil sands operator's airport to be taken to hospitals in Edmonton or Calgary.
Mr. Spring's long-time family home, where his adult son now lives, went up in flames on Tuesday. Several other staff members have lost their homes, as well.
But when asked how he is doing through the ceaseless work and uncertainty, Mr. Spring replies: "We're safe right now."