A whole nation has been transfixed, shaken and worried as a towering forest fire shifted course, jumped a river and a highway and whipped through sections of northern Alberta’s Fort McMurray, the heart of oil-sands country.

As the Fort Mac emergency unfolded before us, Canadians were gripped by the magnitude of the destruction (an estimated 1,600 homes and buildings) and the grave peril to firefighters and residents — all 83,000 of whom were eventually ordered to evacuate on Tuesday.

It was the largest emergency exodus in the province of Alberta’s history — greater than the evacuation of 9,000 people when a forest fire swept through Slave Lake in 2011.

The sudden Fort Mac evacuation is a huge challenge in itself. One of only two routes out of town (the southbound to Edmonton) was at times endangered by fire and closed to traffic. That forced thousands of evacuees to head north to shelter in oilsands work camps, which, vast as they are, could not accommodate a whole city.

Hundreds were stranded in cars along the southbound route, some without gas or provisions, waiting for police to bring fuel. As the fire threatened the downtown, even the hospital had to be evacuated.

Small communities throughout the area, as well as Edmonton, have opened their centres, hotels, campgrounds and homes to Fort Mac families.

Offers of help have come from across Canada, and Ottawa is responding with military resources.

It’s a reminder of the basic decency and compassion that unites Canadians when people are hit by such a disaster.

But it also reflects the reality that no city in Canada likely has so many personal connections with communities and families all over the land.

For decades, Fort Mac has been a place of opportunity for Canadians — none more so than Maritimers — who could find none at home. Thousands have gone to the Mac to work hard and earn good livings, some to stay, others to gain a stake to start a better life in their home provinces.

Fort Mac’s prosperity has been shared with people all over Canada and its peril today touches all of us, too.

Thankfully, no deaths or grave injuries have been reported. By Wednesday, structure fires within the city had been quenched, though, with high temperatures, dry conditions and winds, the risk remains high of forest hot spots or shifting flames re-igniting the city.

Fort Mac is a resilient place in a fragile location. But it needs nationwide help to get this dangerous fire under control, and, beyond that, to care for evacuees and to rebuild a community that is so much a part of us all.

This editorial was first published on Wednesday, May 4 in the the Chronicle Herald, a broadsheet and online newspaper produced in Halifax, Nova Scotia.