CALGARY - The Calgary Stampede parade reserved a special spot for Fort McMurray on Friday, more than two months after a fierce wildfire forced everyone to flee the northeastern Alberta city.
A contingent of first responders and staff from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo marched directly behind the vintage car carrying the parade marshals, singers Jann Arden and Paul Brandt.
The group carried a banner reading "Thank You Alberta" and wore t-shirts with "We are here. We are strong" printed on them.
Wood Buffalo Fire Chief Darby Allen said there were some discussions around him being named parade marshal, but he thought it was more important for representatives of the region to march as a group.
"It is wonderful and kind of like coming home again for me," said Allen, who previously worked with the Calgary Fire Department.
"I was in the parade many times with the Calgary Fire Department so it's nice to bring the people down who were involved in ... the emergency for the first few days so they can meet the people and say thank you to them and we can show them some appreciation for what Calgary did for us."
More than 250,000 people typically line downtown streets every year for the parade, which kicks off the western festival.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi gave the Wood Buffalo crew a pep talk before the parade started.
"It's wonderful to have you in the front of the parade. It's so appropriate. It's so great," he said.
In an interview, Nenshi said there was a provincewide demonstration of "neighbourliness" in the disaster's aftermath.
"When the tragedy happened in Wood Buffalo, we saw how the community comes together, especially in this time when the world seems bent at coming apart at the seams."
Dale Bendfeld, director of emergency management with the municipality, said the city is grateful for how welcoming Albertans were when more than 80,000 Fort McMurray residents were forced to leave.
"They opened up their homes and their hearts to us," said Bendfeld, who grew up in Calgary.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the Fort McMurray presence was moving.
"They deserve it. They've been through a rough time and I'm pretty sure Calgarians are going to give them an exceptionally warm welcome."
Arden, who estimates she's been to 50 Stampedes in her life, said Friday was a highlight.
She said she wanted to convey her "gratitude and utmost respect" to the Fort McMurray first responders marching behind her.
"We're so, so lucky in this province and in this country to have these kinds of men and women available to us when things go sideways."
Brandt had a similar message.
"They've just done an amazing job helping us through such a tragedy and a difficult time for the folks up in Fort McMurray and we wanted to do everything we could to recognize them and use this platform to say thank you for everything they've done."