Calgary-based WestJet is playing a big role in helping stranded evacuees get out of the dangerous situation in Fort McMurray.

The airline has been juggling dozens of flights in and out of work camps, where about 25,000 people fled as a mandatory evacuation order came down for the residents of the oilsands community earlier this week.

“We’re moving and evacuating employees and anybody else who is at the camp right now. Between yesterday and today, we’ll have about 70 flights in and out as quick as we can. We’re moving as many people as possible,” said Lauren Stewart, spokesperson for WestJet. “More are going to Edmonton than Calgary.”

Stewart says WestJet has an existing relationship with Suncor and Shell and this operation is just an expansion of that partnership.

The flights have been prioritizing the more vulnerable evacuees and getting them to safety in Calgary and Edmonton.

At first, the flights were carrying supplies to and from the camps, but now the rescue effort has become the top priority. “On Tuesday, there were a few flights going up with supplies but now the flights are going up empty and coming back full.”

Stewart says they are not concerned about the costs it will take. “We will deal with that later.”

She says that there has been a great response on social media for their efforts. “The social media feeds have been full of great stories and great feedback. We’re really glad that we can help out. It’s part of the WestJet brand, the care that we have for the community and the people.”

Lauren Nikolaj, who was evacuated from the work camp early in the morning along with thousands of others, called the experience 'exhausting'.

"It's been a really exhausting three days, honestly. Everybody did the best they could to house the families and keep everybody calm but, when you don't know what's going on and everybody's scared, it makes for a really exhausting time."

The evacuation came on suddenly early Friday morning, she says. "In the early morning hours, we were woken up because the whole camp was being evacuated. Coming down in the morning and seeing dogs and babies crying and people with fear on their faces and what they're carrying is all they have. It was absolutely humbling and terrifying at the same time."

Nikolaj says she is happy to get back and while she has a home to go back to in Edmonton, her heart goes out people who lost everything. "It's going to take a while for everything to be rebuilt."

At Calgary International Airport, city staff met the evacuees as soon as they disembarked, making sure they have all the social support they need and have accommodation in place.

There are reports that between 8,000 and 10,000 people are expected to be transported to the two cities, but there is no clear number on how many will actually land here in the city.

But, no matter the number of people that reach Calgary, the city says their needs will be met.

Plenty of evacuees are already being cared for in residences at SAIT. More than 200 people are being housed and the institution says it can accommodate 200 more.

The Calgary Emergency Management Agency has been helping SAIT prepare all week for the influx.

CEMA says they will help wherever needed, but if anyone has friends or family they can stay with, that would be the better option.

While it is appreciated, Tom Sampson, CEMA chief, says that donations cannot be handled at reception centres.

Anyone looking to donate should contact the Red Cross.

Reception centres operating within the province:

  • Fort McKay – Fort McKay Business Centre
  • Lac La Biche – The Bolt Centre – 8702-91 Avenue
  • Edmonton – Northlands Grounds, Hall A – 7515-118 Avenue
  • St Paul – Centennial Recreation Centre – 4802-53 Street
  • Moose Haven- 1, Janvier *expected to close May 5
  • Grasslands – Community Hall, Main Street
  • Drayton Valley – Omniplex – 5737-45 Avenue
  • Smokey Lake Reception Centre
  • SAIT - Residence Tower 151 Dr. Carpenter Circle NW *For Suncor Employees and Evacuees in camps
  • Fort Chippewan Reception Centre *For First Nation Band Members only
  • Town of Athabasca Reception Centre – Athabasca Multiplex, #2 University Drive

To make a donation to the Red Cross, call 1-800-418-1111 or visit the official website.