As Jeanette Bancarz, branch manager with ATB Financial in Fort McMurray, Alta., slowly made her way out of town, she felt like she was living in an episode of The Walking Dead.

Bancarz had already been in her car for hours as she and her husband navigated the apocalyptic walls of fire and unprecedented gridlock leaving the northern Alberta city of 88,000.

They left one of their vehicles behind because it didn’t have enough gas to make it to civilization, and the service stations at the outskirts of town were either empty or had line-ups further than the eye could see.

“I saw people walking with jerry cans to gas stations but they were out of gas. It looked like zombies were coming,” Bancarz says. “People were waiting by the side of the road waiting for somebody to bring them some gas.”

The plodding pace on the highway — it took 12 hours to drive to their acreage near Edmonton, a trip that usually takes one-third that long — was in stark contrast to her last moments in Fort McMurray.

From her window overlooking Beacon Hill, she watched the fire pick up speed as it raced toward her.

“It happened so quickly, in the space of 20 minutes. I was on a conference call and I said, ‘I have to go. I think we’re in trouble.’ In an hour, it changed from no-risk to high-risk. I think it caught everybody off guard,” she says.

Moments later, Bancarz’s branch was closed and team members had been instructed to go home, quickly pack up what they could and get out of town.

Before Bancarz headed out, a fellow employee pulled up. She had just lost her home to the fire, didn’t know what to do and was in no shape to drive.

“I took her suitcases and said, ‘Come with me’,” Bancarz says.

Bancarz is one of many members of Fort McMurray’s financial services community who not only made it out before so much of the city burned, but lent a helping hand to those in need.

Stepping up for clients

Businesses in Alberta have become all-too-familiar with disaster plans, following the flooding in Calgary three years ago and the devastating fire in Slave Lake in 2011. ATB’s staff received notice that they were evacuating around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon and four hours later, the company’s disaster plan had been communicated to all ATB employees throughout the province.

ATB staff were contacting customers the following day via email, text, cell phone or Twitter to let them know help was at the ready. That included temporary overdrafts and waived payments.

“We were able to give them a sense of relief and say, ‘don’t worry about the financial matters’,” Bancarz says. “Some of our customers don’t know if they’re getting paid and they need that peace of mind so they can just worry about the basics.”

ATB is the largest Alberta-based financial services institution in the province with 172 full-serve branches, 710,000 customers and assets of $43.1 billion.

The work that Bancarz and her co-workers are able to do with retail and business customers is a testament to the power of the Internet and staff members who are strewn all over the country. Other ATB branches have stepped up to make proactive customer calls, too.

“We certainly aren’t alone in this,” she says.

Indeed, Servus Credit Union was stepping up on behalf of clients as well, deferring loan and mortgage payments for up to six months, extending overdrafts and allowing them to cash in guaranteed investment certificates without penalty.

“We’re bending over backward to have things ready. We have our programs in place. Members are just starting to do [take advantage of this extended] access, it’s the tip of the iceberg. People could be out of work for who knows how long. We expect that business to ramp up; that was our experience with the floods and Slave Lake,” says Mike Dickinson, Servus’s director of corporate communications. “We can increase your authorized overdraft limit, too. It might be a little more liberal than our standard conditions.”

Servus also made a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross, a gift that was matched by the big banks and a wide variety of other organizations across the country.

But just when things will get back to anything resembling normal is a wild card.

“A lot more will be known once the immediate gravity is settled and we’re into more of a recovery mode and we can hear from the authorities. What that will mean and [the timing of] rebuilding, I think it’s a little early on that yet,” Dickinson says.

But it’s not only financial services companies in Alberta that are watching the situation in Fort McMurray closely. Murray Taylor, who stepped down last week as the CEO of Winnipeg-based Investors Group Inc. and one of the most socially responsible corporate leader in Canada, says once the firm was able to determine that its people were safe, it shifted into fundraising mode.

“We have launched an appeal to give through our network of 2,000 employees and 5,300 consultants across the country, which we’ll match and will be matched again by the federal government. That’s our immediate reaction,” he says. “Our history in giving to natural disasters in the past has been extraordinary. It’s too early to tell what that will lead to in dollars but we’re expecting it will be very generous.”

Photo copyright: Bloomberg