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Muslims in Alberta Pray for Rain as Raging Wildfire Forces More People to Flee

The province of Alberta has declared a state of emergency after a massive wildfire forced more than 80,000 people to evacuate from Fort McMurray. Last night, neighboring towns and an evacuation center also had to clear out.
May 5, 2016, 2:05pm
Fire approaches Anzac, a town 50 kilometers south of Fort McMurray. (Photo by Jason Franson/AP)

As thousands of people from Fort McMurray, Alberta poured into Edmonton seeking refuge from the wildfire ravaging their community, nearly one hundred Muslims gathered at the provincial legislature to pray for rain.

"Whenever there's a drought, our religion has a prayer to make the rain come. And that's what's needed right now for Fort McMurray," said Issam Saleh from the Muslim Association of Canada. "And we will keep praying until it happens."

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Earlier on Wednesday, the province of Alberta declared a state of emergency after a massive wildfire destroyed 1,600 homes and buildings in Fort McMurray and forced more than 80,000 residents to evacuate to surrounding towns and cities. That night, many were forced to flee again after changing weather patterns threatened the safety of their evacuation centers in nearby communities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police when went door to door in Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, and Fort McMurray First Nation, which had all been accommodating evacuees, after a mandatory evacuation order was issued for them. The regional emergency operations center had just relocated to Anzac, located about 50 kilometers south of Fort McMurray, from the Fort McMurray airport. It planned to move further south to Lac La Biche.

Leaving Fort McMurray Tuesday May 3, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Becca Hess.)

So far, there have been no injuries or fatalities reported, but it will be a huge struggle for the community — already grappling economic hardship tied to plummeting oil prices — to fully recover.

Saleh came to Edmonton 26 years ago from Lebanon. "But my parents are from Palestine, where they had to flee violence in the 1940s," he said. "So I can relate a little to what Fort Mac people are feeling right now, leaving everything."

Ali Jomha, a prominent leader in Fort McMurray's Muslim community, which has grown to nearly 10 percent of the city at several thousand, became emotional as he told the group that the local Islamic school there has burned down. "How will we ever rebuild?" he asked. Another man, Ibrahaim Elladen, recalled how he worked with a construction company in Fort McMurray and was involved with building many of the structures that have been turned to ash.

Muslims pray for rain on the steps of the Alberta legislature in Edmonton. (Photo by Rachel Browne/VICE News)

"I have to believe that the community will rise again," he said. "It's a place that has so much resilience and has been through economic hardship, so I know things will look up again really soon."

Imam El Sayed Amin spoke to the crowd from the building's step before he began the call to prayer. A group of young girls waved Canadian flags, while joggers paused . "May Allah make us emerge from this human crisis and environmental disaster," the Imam said. His mosque has taken in six families from Fort McMurray, and it is bracing for hundreds more over the next week.

Smoke approaches Anzac evacuation center, 50 kilometers south of Fort McMurray. (Photo by Twitter user @SlimCat_23/EPA)

There's countless efforts to assist evacuees across Edmonton, from locals driving hours to deliver gas and food to people stranded along the highway, to real estate agents offering up their vacant listings as temporary homes.

"I was here during the tornado when that struck just east of Edmonton in 1987 and 27 people were killed. And we all came together to offer support and get through a hard time. That's happening again now," Lorne Dach, MLA for the Edmonton McClung district, said at the legislature grounds. "And that's why we're nicknamed the City of Champions, it's because of the tornado, not because our hockey team, the Edmonton Oilers. It's just what we're about here."

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Anzac Recreation Centre, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation now under a mandatory evacuation order. — Rishi K Nagar (@RishiKNagar)May 5, 2016

Hundreds of evacuees have been placed at the mass evacuation centre set up at the Northlands Expo Centre, an exhibition and concert complex in the middle of the city. Around 1,300 people can be housed at the 600,000 square foot venue, which has been served by Red Cross teams and other volunteers.

Related: 'It's a Fucking Ghost Town': Inside Canada's Fort McMurray As It Burns

Three teen boys from Timberlea, a northern part of Fort McMurray, approached the center later that night, following a buffet dinner of rolls and lasagna. "Usually we're here in Edmonton to go shopping or something, to party. Now, it's to save our lives," said Erni Marquez.

The boys had arrived early Wednesday morning after pulling over along the highway for a few hours to get some sleep. "I miss Fort Mac already," said Karl Bellen, who had to evacuate his grade nine class at Holy Trinity Catholic High School on Tuesday afternoon. At first, the big plumes of smoke seemed funny to him and his friends.

The evacuation center in Anzac. (Photo by Twitter user @SlimCat_23/EPA)

"We were kind of joking about it. Like, it didn't seem real."

Bellen's friend, Marquez, said he keeps checking social media to make sure his house is still in tact. Marquez, who came "straight to Fort Mac" from the Philippines nine years ago, says his home is going to survive. "It's going to be around, I think," he said. "There's a lot of damage there, but I think our place is going to be okay," he said.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne