Fleeing Wildfire, Finding Kindness

By Kevin Masterman, Toronto Police Service Published: 2:42 p.m. June 13, 2016

Leaving Fort McMurray with only the clothes on their back, an Alberta family had no idea what to expect in the coming weeks and were astounded by the goodwill they were shown while staying in Toronto.

A group, two men in TPS police uniform with others in front of a sign
The Villameros family with Constables John Wood, Mark Fennell and Station Operator Shui Leong

Like thousands of others, the Villarmeros family had to outrun the wildfires that threatened the oil boom town, after an unusually dry winter followed by a unique hot dry air mass and high temperatures in the spring. The fire became known as "The Beast" for its unpredictable ferocity showing no mercy as it consumed over 2,400 homes and forced the largest evacuation in the history of Alberta.

On May 3, Johnathan Villarmero, a native of the Phillipines, knew it was time to go.

"I knew, by instinct, it was time to go. I had seen typhoons in the Philippines and this was the fire version of an enraged mother nature... but this was terrifying and I knew our family had to abandon our home," he said of his wife, Melly, and their 2-year-old son, Atticus. With a full tank of gas and little else, they began their surreal journey south past billowing plumes of smokes, advancing flames and abandoned cars along the highway.

Almost 4,000 kilometres away, Melly's brother-in-law, Sergeant Dale Corra (Melly is sister to Corra's wife, Evelyn), learned of their plight and spoke with his colleagues, spawning a support network. The Villameros came to Toronto to stay with family, unsure of what became of their home and possessions.

Veteran station operator Shui Leong began to organize a fundraiser for essential items for the family. Operation Atticus was launched and Primary Response Constables John Wood and Zita Nunes rallied support. Community Response Constables Adrain Tait, Mark Fennell and Jay Tanham spread the good word as well and the entire effort was supported by Superintendent David McCormack.

 

A hand-written letter
A letter from Melly Villarmero thanking the Toronto Police for their support of her family
A water cooler jar overturned with a photo of a family accompanied by text too small to be read
The donation jar set up at 52 Division to benefit the Villarmero family

Like their fellow residents of this industrious northern Alberta city, the Villarmeros sought out work as part of the petrochemical industry.

As shocking as the fire was to the Villarmeros in a negative way, they were astounded by the compassionate outreach of Toronto Police Officers who came together to assist them. 

"I am in tears of joy to thank 52 Division on behalf of our little boy Atticus," said Melly, who wept at the reception. Her family was presented with $600 in debit cards in early June through the fundraising efforts.

Melly wrote to Chief Mark Saunders to thank officers.

"I want to thank Shui and the 52 Officer Team for helping give our baby boy what he needs for a new start, god bless you," she wrote, noting she will use the money for supplies and clothes for her little boy. "The officer have a good heart."

The Villarmeros have just gone back to Fort McMurray to begin anew and found a new apartment as smoke and water ruined their last home uninhabitable.

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